Concerns raised over resources used to fight state’s worst high-rise fire

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Residents trapped. Instructions to stay on a balcony. Falling debris causing more fire. A firefighter mayday call.

The panic, stress, and heroism on the day of Honolulu’s biggest fire in decades is revealed in hours of Marco Polo fire incident logs Always Investigating has obtained.

The minute-by-minute incident detail report reveals just how massive the operation and coordination had to be to tackle the deadly fire. It explains who was there and what they did. It shows resources that didn’t come, and that has many rank-and-file firefighters questioning whether they were at more risk as a result.

At 2:17 p.m. last Friday it starts: “High-priority structure fire, Marco Polo high rise.”

From there, the incident detail report shows a quickly escalating disaster:

Debris falls onto the street below as occupants dozens of floors above are trapped. Fire spreads up and sideways. There’s an occupant under a bed. With elevators out of service, residents who can’t walk are being carried down, or sheltering with firefighters.

There’s a mayday call and response as a firefighter is lost in the thick smoke. A rescue protocol is triggered. He thankfully rejoins the company safely.

“Imagine you can’t see anything, hot as heck, and now you’re by yourself,” said a Honolulu firefighter who wants to remain unidentified. He and others came forward with concerns about how the response was coordinated.

“When you don’t step up and you don’t take charge of a situation and the end result is chaotic like it is,” the firefighter said, “we’re losing faith.”

He’s talking about what some firefighters are calling a lack of resources — both human and technical — at the scene.

The assistant fire chief of fire operations (F3 on the dispatch log) and the mobile command center (MCC) are recommended and dispatched. More than 30 minutes later, the log says: not responding.

“The mobile command center, which didn’t come at the same time that the Fire 3 didn’t show up, it’s designed to take the command team out of the hectic scene and put them in a quiet area where they can work together and be organized and effective,” the firefighter said. “There’s no reason why that equipment didn’t come. We’ve spent a lot of money on this MCC and this is the prime example of a situation. It should have been deployed.”

In the absence of those resources, a Waikiki battalion chief with about four years of that level of experience commanded 100 firefighters from companies island-wide; a town-area battalion chief with about three years of BC experience jumped in as well later.

One board member grilled the chief about this at Wednesday’s Honolulu Fire Commission meeting.

“Is there a point in time (command) was transferred to the assistant chief, Fire 3 or yourself?” asked fire commissioner Max Hannemann.

“It’s not automatic,” Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves said. “We show up, but really it’s up to the incident commander and the higher chief to decide, look, you want me to take over or I want to take over, so that discussion occurs at the incident. So it’s driven by the incident and what is being done at the time when we show up.”

HFD declined to answer our questions about why command remained at the battalion level or why the MCC didn’t get sent, saying it’s all part of the ongoing after-action review.

“Our guys did a great job. Our firefighters worked their tail off. They put their life on the line,” the firefighter told Always Investigating. “They went to places that nobody should have to go and they did a great job. Could they have been more successful with a management team that was more experienced? I would say yeah.”

Firefighters weren’t entirely without information. In fact, they head to the scene already reading a computerized pre-plan on file for many buildings.

Always Investigating obtained Marco Polo’s HFD pre-plan, updated just last fall, and it foretold many of the circumstances they ended up facing at Friday’s blaze:

  • Likelihood of unit fires spreading due to lack of sprinklers;
  • Strong cross-ventilation down hallways;
  • Limited visibility;
  • Long distances between standpipe connections; and
  • A high number of occupants, many elderly and handicapped.

The pre-plan also predicts “possible fire extension into the enclosed hallways and vertical spread to units above if not contained quickly” and recommends firefighters “contain fire to the unit of origin with a quick interior attack. Help evacuate residents above fire floor.”

“The first-in company came from out of their first-in area,” the firefighter explained, “which is significant when you consider their knowledge of the building and their ability to be really effective.”

Many firefighters still think the mobile command center would have helped even more as the scene unfolded.

“Where they’re at, where they go, how much air they have,” the firefighter said, “how long they’ve been in the hot zone, how many times they’ve made entry, even to the level of what do they feel like, do they have medical problems?”

Medical problems then and potentially in the future are also top of mind since Marco Polo has a reported history of asbestos in the building materials. Again, a commissioner wanted answers from the chief.

“One of the safety concerns also: asbestos. Were you guys able to determine that during the alarm?” Hannemann asked the chief.

“Commissioner, at the time of the fire, the environment we’re going in is called the IDLH, immediate danger to life and health, and we take all precautions. There are a million other things and toxic fumes that we’re dealing with in there,” Neves responded.

“If it was asbestos in terms of the turnouts when you go in the building before returning to stations, is there any different procedure?” Hannemann asked.

“There’s no difference,” Neves said. “We have a decontamination process.”

Always Investigating asked, what decontamination resources should have been made available on the day on the scene?

HFD declined to answer but the firefighter told us: “I believe management would have dictated that that be done. This equipment rode back in the truck with us. No specific direction, nothing from the command to say when you go back, do this.”

Nothing in the fire department’s building file gave an obvious warning about potential asbestos exposure. It’s not a field on the fire inspection report system, called HOSES. We obtained and reviewed several years of Marco Polo fire inspection reports and found:

  • It had been inspected in 2011,
  • Again in 2014, and
  • Twice last year — once in June, and again in October when one of the standpipes failed a system test.
  • A notice of violation was issued, and is still outstanding.

But buildings have several standpipes, and HFD’s spokesperson told Always Investigating there were “no issues with the standpipe system utilized in supplying water to the fire floors.”

There are many steps to wait out until the department’s final report will be made public. They have to do what’s called a post-incident analysis, which just started with a questionnaire sent to all companies that worked the scene.

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