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Alert Young Cops Saved Businesses, Apartments from Fire

Assistant Fire Chief says Kurt Svatek's sharp ears and alertness caught a fire just beginning that could have quickly grown to significant size and destroyed a building.

Wauwatosa Police Officers Derek Dienhart (left) and Kurt Svatek were on patrol the morning of June 8 and detected a fire before it could get out of hand.
Wauwatosa Police Officers Derek Dienhart (left) and Kurt Svatek were on patrol the morning of June 8 and detected a fire before it could get out of hand.
Two of Wauwatosa's younger patrol officers – one still considered "green" by his boss – have been recognized by both the Police and Fire departments for alertness and actions that saved at least two businesses and two apartments from going up in smoke.

Four more businesses in an attached building could have been threatened as well.

At 3:42 a.m. on June 8, Officers Kurt Svatek and Derek Dienhart were driving separate squad cars on a "prisoner conveyance" run – taking a juvenile offender back to his group home in the area of 84th and Capitol.

They were driving west on North Avenue when Svatek, a cop for three years and with Tosa for just two, in the first squad with the boy in back, heard something unusual – from his moving car, he recognized the sound of a smoke detector going off somewhere to his left in the 7200 block.

This was not some clanging commercial fire alarm – just a typical residential-type smoke detector, such as you should have on your ceiling.

"I stopped and looked around, but I didn't really see anything," Svatek said, "so I made a U-turn and told him (Dienhart), 'You know, I think I hear a smoke detector.'

"I told my juvenile, 'Hey, hang on a second,' and we got out and came upon this restaurant."

'A thick layer of smoke'

Svatek and Dienhart saw "a thick layer of smoke" through the windows of Ono Kine Grindz, 7215 North Ave.

"You could smell it, too, on the east side of the building," said Dienhart, who has six years on the force.

"I immediately notified dispatch to call the Fire Department," Svatek wrote in a brief call report.

The two officers then began pounding on the doors of the businesses and apartments, finding them all locked and getting no response from anyone.

"We shined our flashlights in the windows of the second level, where there's an apartment, and didn't see any smoke in there," Svatek said.

The Fire Department battalion chief arrived then, and the officers turned over the scene to him.

Svatek then took his prisoner back to his group home, while Dienhart "stuck around to control traffic."

Damage control

Firefighters would quickly find a plastic bin full of smoldering, grease-soaked rags in the kitchen, the bin beginning to melt. They were able to carry it out and did not even need to get the restaurant wet.

In fact, even the smoke damage was not serious enough for the Health Department to shut Ono Kine Grindz down or make the owners throw out any food. They opened that morning as usual.

Neither officer would file a full incident report, and Svatek's one-paragraph call report would not be seen by any of the ranking officers of the Police Department.

It wasn't until about a week later, when Assistant Fire Chief Jim Case sent an official Letter of Appreciation from his department, that Svatek and Dienhart's supervisors even knew what they had done.

"To hear something like that, driving down the road, that's really something," Case said in an interview. "Had he not heard it – that's the type of fire that would have become significantly involved. There were all kinds of combustibles near the bin. It definitely would have grown."

"That's the type of fire where," Case said, "if they hadn't heard the alarm, it would have gone on until someone saw flames and smoke coming out of the building.

"In another half hour, maybe less, we'd have been fighting a good-sized fire instead of carrying out a bucket of rags.

"It was a job well done."

Situational awareness trumps all

Svatek and Dienhart said there is no specific training exercise for listening for particular sounds, such as a smoke detector, but they credit the department's procedures for preparing them for an incident like this.

"I think, when you're out there, you get used to the sounds in any particular squad area," Dienhart said. "I find myself sometimes where you'll just pick something up. It could be out of the corner of your eye or a weird sound. You just get a feel for how things are normally, and sometimes, just something small will set off an alert, I guess."

"Even, depending on what squad area you work," Svatek said, "you look down an alley, and you know just by looking what lights are usually on. If you notice more lights are on, they could be motion-sense lights. Something raises your awareness; you know something's not right."

That is by design, they said, and third-shift officers like themselves are assigned to each squad area for at least two months to develop exactly that level of familiarity and awareness.

LaDonna Telford, the owner of Lady in Red resale shop, which shares the building with Ono Kine Grindz, told how the fire was discovered, said, "I'm very thankful and grateful. I'm appreciative just that they're out there at that time of night, that they are always on the job."

Ono Kine Grindz is closed for the week for Independence Day and the owners could not be reached for comment.

The officer of the future

Both officers have gotten some atta-boys from their colleagues, and Svatek earned a police Letter of Appreciation from Chief Barry Weber for his part.

"Your level of alertness and patrol tactics regarding this matter were outstanding," Weber wrote in part. "You quick response led you to a smoldering start of a fire which could have resulted in considerable structure damage and loss of property."

Capt. Jeff Sutter had even more encouraging words for Svatek, who, he said, is still so young he's still considered "green."

"He's the future," Sutter said. "A young go-getter, always active, always alert, always looking, always seeking things – which is what we look for in our third-shift officers.

"He's not a sit around and wait for it to come to to him kind of guy."

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