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10 News Investigators: Taxpayers waste half million on training system that doesn't work

9:52 AM, Apr 17, 2013   |    comments
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TAMPA, Florida -- Firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country.

Firefighters need continuous training. While some is required to be hands-on with equipment, some training takes place in a classroom setting.

The Tampa Fire Department came up with a plan to save taxpayers money, but the 10 News Investigators discovered the opposite happened -- it's costing taxpayers money and the classroom training is often putting homeowners at risk.

The head of training for the Tampa Fire Department, Dennis Jones, said, "It's a very high liability area, and we feel it is necessary to train."

However, all that training comes at a price.

Back in 2004, then City of Tampa Fire Chief Dennis Jones noticed a problem. He said when firefighters left their stations for classroom training, that left parts of the city at risk for longer response times. So Jones had a pitch: set up an online training system that let firefighters train without ever leaving their fire stations. He pitched it to the City Council, and they agreed.     

The department got the equipment and put it in all the stations after Homeland Security gave the fire department $400,000 in taxpayer dollars for the equipment. The city pitched in another $100,000.

Despite the hefty half-million dollar price tag, it all sounded good: the online training system would save money on overtime, fuel and wear and tear of the vehicles.

There was just one problem: after spending more than a half million dollars to put the system in every fire station in the city, the new training system didn't work.

It turns out the shared computer network for the city just couldn't handle all that data. So, the audio and video training system sits unused to this day, more than six years after it was installed.

We wanted answers. So we went to the man in charge of training for the city -- Dennis Jones.

That's right, the head of training now is the same Dennis Jones who, as fire chief, recommended the city buy the half-million dollar system. He retired as chief, then got a new job as training director for the city of Tampa.

Jones said, "The vendor who sold us the equipment, they were absolutely confident it was going to work."

"We applied with what we knew, the best we knew."

We asked Jones if the city should have known better, if it should have known more about the system. Jones said, "It was new technology."

But that answer wasn't good enough for former council member Joseph Caetano, who said, "If they're not doing what the intended purpose was, that's fraud. You can't tell the federal government you want to buy equipment for educational facilities at all the fire stations and then not utilize it."

The Tampa Fire Department and the I.T. Department in the city say it is not a matter of fraud, but the fact no one realized the city's shared Internet system couldn't handle the audio and video for the interactive training.

At the time, to upgrade the system would have cost taxpayers several hundred thousand a year. The I.T. Department said the cost has come down since then, but it would still cost $396,000 every year to make it work, which means for now taxpayers have a half a million dollar white elephant. And firefighters continue to put the public at risk when they leave the station for classroom training.

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