Mayor wants review of HFD safety, training in wake of rescue-related accidents

Always Investigating

Honolulu’s mayor is calling on the Honolulu Fire Commission to ask for a review of the fire department’s training and safety procedures in the wake of two accidents in the past few months.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s request comes a day after video surfaced of a firefighter falling from a helicopter rescue net, an accident that left him with serious injuries.

That accident, and the death of a firefighter during a rescue watercraft training in June, have sparked allegations that the fire department isn’t doing enough to address safety concerns for firefighters.

Always Investigating spoke with all sides of an increasingly public dispute between the firefighters union and the Honolulu Fire Department.

The Hawaii Fire Fighters Association union tells us management is putting firefighters in even more harm’s way than the job usually entail, while others say it’s a nationally accredited department with high expectations that is trying to do the best for all workers and the public.

Witness video revealed just how serious the firefighter’s fall was during a Diamond Head rescue on Sept. 2.

“Gina, the video you showed is very troubling for me,” Caldwell said. “The good news is the firefighter is out of the hospital and recovering, but I do think more needs to be done.”

The mayor said he wants the fire commission to get involved.

“They need to ask that the fire department review their training procedures, their safety procedures, make sure everything is updated, and everything is being done that should be done,” Caldwell said.

The mayor also wants to make sure answers are thorough, and that lessons are learned.

“The fire commission should make sure there’s a thorough investigation of the incident, maybe internally or an outside entity, and see what comes out of that,” Caldwell said.

Witness video given to Always Investigating has us asking even more questions of HFD Chief Manuel Neves.

“A lot of those detailed questions are going to be covered in the investigation and we don’t want to jeopardize the investigation or anything else by speaking out of turn,” HFD spokesman Capt. David Jenkins told us, referring to a National Transportation Safety Board review of the helicopter accident.

Always Investigating asked, as to the topic of safety in general, when will we get answers and assurances from the chief on how the workforce, and those they’re rescuing, are being kept safe?

“We have a news conference scheduled for tomorrow (Friday) afternoon,” Jenkins said. “We’re bringing in some subject matter experts within the department so we can answer all questions and address all issues of that nature, which is so important.”

The HFFA union says it’s still waiting for answers in the death of firefighter Cliff Rigsbee in June after an injury during rough-water rescue training. The fire department and Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations tell me their investigations have not been completed.

Meanwhile, the union says training continues with no changes.

“We know what injuries he had that killed him,” HFFA president Bobby Lee said. “We don’t know how he sustained the injuries. We could actually have a guy die again tomorrow because we don’t know how Cliff Rigsbee actually sustained those injuries.”

But what they’ve gleaned so far worries many workers.

“There were others who sustained the same type of injuries over the past few years that was bad enough to take them out of work, but not bad enough to kill them,” Lee said.

The chief did address training at an annual award event hosted by the 200 Club, a group that supports the fire department. Neves talked about all 1,100 firefighters finishing a ground survival program.

“We did that in 2015,” Neves said. “We took it up a notch in 2016.”

This year’s major program focused on something called rapid intervention training.

“If you hear over the radio, or a call for help that someone else is needing help or another fire company is in trouble, you have the techniques and skills now to respond and to save that other crew,” Neves said.

But before the first session could get underway, the union tried to block it at the Hawaii Labor Relations Board over lack of consultation. Lee says they had safety concerns because it was such a physical program and everyone from drivers to captains to non-rescue staff would have to do it.

The labor board found in favor of the employer, but the department still compromised and said people could opt to observe if they felt it could be too strenuous.

“We had some guys that went through and still got hurt, and others who said, ‘No, I’m not going to do these particular exercises,’” Lee said. He says there were a lot of strains, sprains, and muscle injuries, and even a staff member who was out of work for a time over claustrophobia from the intense rescue scenarios.

The union is appealing the labor board decision in court.

That case is just one in a string of board matters the union has brought since this chief came aboard in 2013, four of which the union has later withdrawn. The rapid intervention training case was decided in the city employer department’s favor, and cases from 2014 and 2015 are still pending.

“Whatever allegations they have, they need to stop,” said Honolulu Fire Commission member MaryJean Castillo. “For me, the taxpayers are also paying for all these lawsuits. We’re wasting the city’s money answering all these allegations.”

“The real problem is our fire chief is so focused right now on fighting us, fighting the union, that whenever we bring up an issue, the answer is no,” Lee said. “He’s going to go the opposite way. It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong.”

Always Investigating asked Lee, couldn’t the same be said of the union, that it wants to fight the chief as well?

“No, we’re defending what we have,” Lee said, “because he makes the kind of decisions to take away stuff from us, not recognize us, or not recognize what the purpose of the union is.”

“Something has to give,” Castillo said. “There are two sides of a story all the time, and if one keeps throwing punches, what would happen to the other person? The department, I think, is beat up to the max to the point that it affects the morale in the fire department.”

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