Reckless Response: What is behind a Ga. county's slow emergency response?

It took more than 15 minutes for firefighters to respond to a house fire where two small children ultimately died. Now the parents - and the 11Alive investigators - are trying to find out what is being done to make families safer in this small Georgia com

They hold each other but don’t hold back tears as they stand next to the graveside of their babies.

"They were beautiful kids,” mother Sarah Gaydon said.

What they wouldn't give to celebrate another birthday.   

To wake up just one more morning to the sound of their babies.

"If you knew them, they were the greatest kids in the whole world," Sarah said - her husband, Jonothon, adding that you couldn't stop smiling around them.

Kaylee and Noah - just 1 and 2 years old – were close in age and in every other way.

Sarah and Jonathon said people sometimes confused them for twins because they were always together - just as they were on Saturday, April 18.

"I was laying down for a nap and I smelled smoke," Sarah said.

Sarah worked an overnight shift. So that afternoon, Jonathan watched the babies so she could nap.

Sarah said she woke to the sight and smell of black smoke and ran to the window. Jonathan's car was gone. Assuming she was alone and quickly losing air, she ran next door for help.

Jonathan went just a few miles away to the store when Sarah reached him on his way home.

Sarah makes a frantic call to 911.

"Sometimes he'll let them take a nap because I can hear them wake up," she said to dispatchers frantically. "But I didn't hear them wake up. So I pray they're not in there."

Minutes after the call, she learned the babies weren't with him. They'd been put down for a nap and were now inside the burning home.

"I mean, it was hopeless, I couldn't even help the very kids that I took care of," Sarah said, holding back tears.

She tried to break windows -- to get inside somehow -- but there was no way. Flames had taken hold.

"I was begging God to save them - somebody save them - and I just watched it burn. That's all I could do is wait,” she said. "It was a long wait"

State fire investigators said the fire ignited from cigarette tossed on the ground somewhere outside the front of the home.

Both babies died that day.  A piece of the Gaydons died too -- an end to life as they knew it.

At that end is where our investigation into this fire began -- starting with the response time. Reports show it was 15 minutes.

First on scene was a sheriff's deputy.  But another 3 minutes passed before a fire engine with water arrived. The real response time was 18 minutes.

Why was it 18 minutes? 11Alive’s Catie Beck visited the nearest station about two and half miles - roughly 5 minutes from the Gaydon home. 

Station 5 has a working fire engine. But on that day, there was no one there to drive it.

The fire coverage map paints a specific picture. But things aren't how they seem here.

Stations 7 and 9 haven't been built yet -- they don't exist. Camp Merril Army Station assists the county, but isn't staffed by the county and they only assist when requested.

Only stations 1,2 and 4 have fire personnel. The rest are unmanned volunteer stations. With those changes incorporated, the coverage map would show much less.

"Our guys are doing the best they can with what they've got and our job is to get them more," Lumpkin County Commissioner Rhett Stringer said.

Stringer tried. He proposed adding more positions after the Gaydon fire. But none have been added.

The board decided to wait on hiring and apply for a federal grant to fund them -- now six months later.

Rhett acknowledge that something like this could happen again but explained that it would take more than just himself to fix the issue.

“I'm one member of a five-man board and I've done what I can do in my position," he said.

In 2015, neighboring rural counties averaged response times between 6 and 8 minutes.

Lumpkin County’s average was over 12 minutes.

We asked Chief David Wimpy if an 18-minute response was acceptable

"Like I said you can't really answer that, Catie,” he said.

When pushed, he said that in the county’s situation, it probably was. He insisted his department is not understaffed or underfunded. 

On April 18, Wimpy said all of his men were battling a chicken house fire. When the Gaydon call came in, resources were on the other side of the county.

"That was a tragedy," he said. "Look a tragedy can happen to anyone - it can happen to us or a big department."

When asked if a family down the road would be safer today that those two children on April 18, he said he couldn’t answer that question.

The department isn't hurting for resources. Inside the staffed stations there are new trucks, gear and vehicles.

Chief Wimpy insists that the situation was simply a tragedy.

"Just a tragedy" just isn't enough for the Gaydons. They don't know if anything could have saved their babies that day. But they do think they could have been given better chances to survive.

"We think of them every moment of every day - even when we're smiling, we are thinking about them," Sarah said.

The fire chief believes his employees and volunteers do an excellent job and continue to improve. For the Gaydons, they hope their story causes change - prevents the pain they still feel.

Sarah and Jonothan said that even in death, their children were together buried side-by-side -- and hand-in-hand.

© 2017 WXIA-TV


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