HONOLULU (KHON2) — It’s been two years since the Marco Polo blaze killed four people, and the Honolulu Fire Department is just wrapping up new high-rise firefighter training. Always Investigating digs deeper into what took so long.
Several operational changes were made very quickly after the 2017 fire, including some in response to problems Always Investigating uncovered at the time. This new training program took years to develop, and to get nearly 1,000 firefighters through the homegrown course.
Deadly lessons learned at the Marco Polo in July 2017 led HFD to rewrite the book on fighting high-rise fires.
“Our basic techniques that we’ve done all this time had worked just fine for us,” said Capt. Joey Condlin, who helped develop the training program. “Marco Polo showed us something different.”
Firefighters learn this and other lessons in a classroom portion of a new training program that just wrapped up cycling HFD personnel through over the past couple of months. Then, beyond the classroom, drills at the training center off Nimitz replicate the tight turns, steep climbs, smoke-out conditions, access and water-angle tricks, even how to hook up hoses to all kinds of standpipes. All of this is unique to tall-building firefighting.
“This is now standard,” explained Capt. Russell Youth, going over a new high-rise kit filled with an assortment of tools and plumbing pieces. “It’s going to go up to every single fire, every time a hose connects to a standpipe that kit should be in play.”
Devices including adapters and flow-meters aim to eliminate low-water-pressure surprises as happened at Marco Polo, where water pressure was so low you could put your hand in front of the nozzle, whereas proper flow should have a blast so strong it can’t be touched.
Another tool – called a “floor below” nozzle– gives firefighters a new angle of attack when fire is raging on a floor or unit that is too hot to access. They’re phasing in larger-diameter hoses – 2.5 inches instead of 1.5 inches.
Always Investigating asked Youth, as a captain in the high-rise district, how does he feel about having these additional resources, and the training, versus how it was before?
“I was in the operations bureau right when the Marco Polo happened,” Youth said, and without a doubt, with 100 percent confidence I can tell you that when you look at the three prongs of administrative, equipment and training, I am absolutely confident that our response to a high rise fire is better now than it was before.”
HFD had done several things quickly in the days, weeks and months after the 2017 fire. They called immediately for a sprinkler retrofit law. They have dispatched an additional engine to every high-rise call since. They put into place new on-scene decontamination procedures due to asbestos exposure and improper steps that Always Investigating was first to reveal.
Always Investigating’s exclusive review of Marco Polo incident logs soon after the event had exposed response-time and communication-gap issues that HFD has since try to head off, with faster second-alarm deployment, for example. The Mobile Command Center – which KHON2 had revealed wasn’t mobilized for Marco Polo — is now at any incident commander’s beck and call.
The training program, however, took much more time.
Always Investigating asked, why did it take so long to get this created and get everybody through it?
“There are a lot of things that needed to be planned out,” explained HFD spokesperson Scott Seguirant, “and then the research needed to be done as far as going out to different departments, going to different training, then bringing everything back then looking what’s going to work for us here in Honolulu.”
Always Investigating asked, what can policymakers and those who hold the purse-strings do to help HFD turn around these kinds of solutions and training programs more quickly?
“Unfortunately making improvements, a lot of the time, will cost money,” Seguirant said. “Our department is about 1,000 firefighters at 43 stations. When budget constraints are there, the things that suffer are, actually, training and equipment, so by all means their support allows us to do this.”
With most current firefighters now through the new training, HFD says they will have to coordinate adding the course to every recruit class, which passes through about twice a year.
The department tells KHON that Kauai and Hawaii Island firefighters are going to come learn the system, too. HFD meanwhile has sent personnel to Maui for live-fire training. HFD does not currently have land and space for such a setting here on Oahu yet.