Politics & Government

Church fire mistake sparks new sharing agreement between city and county departments

Drone video of Andale church fire

(FILE VIDEO -- JUNE 24, 2018) Lightning may have been the cause of a fire that destroyed the roof and attic of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Andale on Sunday.
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(FILE VIDEO -- JUNE 24, 2018) Lightning may have been the cause of a fire that destroyed the roof and attic of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Andale on Sunday.

Two months after a historic church suffered major fire damage and a Wichita fire truck was prematurely called back from the scene, the city and county have reached a new agreement on sharing resources to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again, officials said Wednesday.

The new agreement places the decision of whether to release equipment in the hands of the on-scene commander at an emergency, said County Manager Michael Scholes and City Manager Robert Layton.

The new accord on shared support was reached Aug. 30. But it wasn’t made public until Wednesday, when county Commissioner Richard Ranzau pressed for information at a commission meeting. The commission serves as the governing board of county Fire District No. 1.

The agreement rises from the ashes of the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Andale.

A lightning strike on June 24 set fire to the church. It suffered an estimated $1 million in damage after a Wichita ladder truck was pulled off the fire line by someone in the chain of command at the city fire department.

The county doesn’t have that type of truck, and county officials say the damage would have been less extensive if the truck had stayed on the scene fighting the fire.

Ranzau said he was annoyed that the new agreement was made without consulting all the commissioners and questioned why they hadn’t received details on what happened the day of the fire.

“Has anyone been reprimanded for ordering the fire apparatus to leave the scene while they were in an active fire?” he asked Scholes.

Scholes replied: “I believe there were multiple people disciplined for that.”

Ranzau: “For pulling the vehicle back?”

Scholes: “Correct. And I don’t have the names in front of me to tell you that right now.”

In another tense exchange, Ranzau questioned whether the new agreement is strong enough to keep the city from recalling its fire units prematurely.

“You’ve not provided me any evidence as to why that would stop,” Ranzau told Scholes.

“I can’t give you the details of the city of Wichita’s investigation,” Scholes said. “What I can do and what I did do is ensure it doesn’t happen again, by a mutual aid agreement sitting down with Bob Layton and the two fire chiefs.”

“I don’t believe that you have,” Ranzau replied.

Layton said the city has acknowledged it made a mistake in calling back its ladder truck and apologized.

He said under the new arrangement with the county, only the fire chief could overrule an on-scene incident commander and pull equipment from an active emergency in county territory.

That, he said, “would have to be really extreme circumstances” such as a major blaze burning through a block in the city.

DIon Lefler; 316-461-1079, @DionKansas