Ed. — This is a developing story, and it will be updated online and in the upcoming print edition of The Independent News.
COURTHOUSE — The Virginia Beach Fire Department in April sent firefighters to a house that was burned for training purposes along Princess Anne Road though required paperwork about whether asbestos was present was not completed, according to city officials, a union official and correspondence the union provided to The Independent News.
That error and accusations made by the union representing most of the city’s firefighters – including that people may have been exposed to asbestos – emerged this week after the union released information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Senior city officials said during an interview on Monday, June 4, that procedures were not followed before the training event was held, but they do not believe there was any exposure to asbestos.
What city officials described as a small amount of asbestos was discovered in one specific area of the site near a fireplace weeks after the training event took place.
An internal review will lead to some changes to how such training is overseen, and other inquiries are underway, the officials said. State occupational safety regulators are investigating, The Independent News has confirmed, and the City Council was briefed on the city’s reviews this afternoon at City Hall, and members of the council received a report critical of the fire department’s handling of the event. It was prepared by the city auditor.
“It is a serious matter, and we need to have a serious discussion about it,” said City Councilmember Bobby Dyer, who represents the Centerville District, before the meeting.
City Councilmember Barbara Henley represents the Princess Anne District in which the training event was held. Her son is a city firefighter.
“I expect to have those explanations,” Henley said, also speaking earlier this week.
The house, acquired from a local farmer through a process that normally requires an asbestos report, was set ablaze to facilitate training that ultimately happened on Sunday, April 15. That was a week after an earlier effort to conduct the training had been scheduled, but that was scrapped after firefighters visited the site and expressed concern there may be asbestos there.
After the event was completed on April 15, some firefighters filled out reports about potential exposure to asbestos, according to records obtained by the union. In May, the union requested records and made complaints to several agencies.
In a statement released on Monday, June 4, the head of the Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters Local 2924 said the training on a parcel across the road from Sherwood Lakes put firefighters and citizens at risk.
Bill Bailey, president of the union and a retired city firefighter, said the union reported what it believes to be violations of federal and state law to federal, state and local officials. The union alleges “an intentional abuse of public position, city equipment, resources and employees” in permitting a release of “hazardous material” through the burn.
“The trust of the public as well as the firefighters has been damaged and can only be regained by a complete, transparent and thorough investigation along with appropriate consequences,” Bailey wrote.
City Fire Chief David Hutcheson and Deputy City Manager Steven Cover, a former Virginia Beach fire chief who oversees public safety matters, said in an interview that some fire department officials did not follow procedures by failing to complete an asbestos report, but that did not mean there was exposure during the live burn.
Scott Kalis, the city’s occupational safety and health manager, said he visited the area after the house was burned to identify whether there might be asbestos present, and he found what he called a small amount in pieces of tile near the fireplace. His visit came weeks after the house burned, however.
Cover said the city believes any asbestos particles may have burned up or, if any became airborne, did not travel past the property where the training occurred.
Hutcheson said the department did not believe anyone was in the path of smoke from the fire. The chief explained that asbestos is one of a number of carcinogens firefighters potentially encounter, and they work to prevent exposure to any carcinogens that result from fires.
Cover said firefighters had their breathing protection with them at the scene. If they felt it was needed, they should have worn it or a mask that protects them from particulates, he said.
Bailey said firefighters could not have known they should wear respiratory equipment during a training fire because they believed training staff had done “due diligence.” He said the union’s goal is a thorough, transparent review of what happened and protections for firefighters and the community.
The city would not release a report compiled by City Auditor Lyndon Remias, though he summarized some findings during a public session with City Council on Tuesday, June 5, including that some in the chain overseeing the training were concerned there might be asbestos at the site and the firefighters at the April 15 burn apparently were not aware that had been raised by the other shift that did not conduct the training.
In an interview on Monday, Cover and Hutcheson discussed recommendations to improve processes about how the city acquires and uses structures for training, which both said remains an important way to prepare firefighters.
Hutcheson said past uses of acquired structures will be reviewed to ensure procedures have been followed and stronger standards are being put in place to prevent problems going forward. Further, he said his office is reaching out to residents in Sherwood Lakes so people who live near the property understand what happened.
“Nothing was done intentionally,” Hutcheson said. “We take very seriously – the utmost importance – the safety of the public and our firefighters. It’s what we do.”
He and Cover would not discuss whether anyone had been disciplined because it is a personnel matter.
“The people who made mistakes there – it’s going to be addressed,” Cover said.
Hutcheson said the union, by basing accusations upon emails and documents, is telling a misleading story.
“That’s fear mongering,” he said.
Regarding the asbestos report that was not prepared before the training, he added, “We should have gotten the check off done, but we would never put personnel in danger.”
Hutcheson said the officials who ran the training used a state standard for a demolition burn in a rural area because of the property’s location, rather than a nationally recognized standard for training with acquired structures.
That was an error, Hutcheson said.
Media reports have described the site of the training as remote, even erroneously as near the city line, but that is not a full description of the area. The house is immediately surrounded by fields on its side of the road, which could give the department a chance to train for fighting a rural fire, such as maintaining water supply.
The property is within Virginia Beach’s transition area between the suburban north and a vast area of southern rural communities. Suburban development, with limitations, is allowed there and it is near the site of the fire. The Sherwood Lakes subdivision is across the road, which is why the department will contact that neighborhood.
The fire departments in two other Hampton Roads cities, both of which also have significant rural areas, use the National Fire Protection Association’s standard to govern procedures for training involving acquired structures. This includes identifying and removing asbestos before training. Officials from those cities did not address the situation in Virginia Beach, but discussed their own practices.
Capt. Steven Bradley, a Chesapeake Fire Department spokesperson, said there are requirements that structures are checked for asbestos before training and that they “strictly” follow the practices spelled out by the National Fire Protection Association.
“That’s the standard on acquired structures,” he said on Monday.
Diana Klink, media and community relations director for Suffolk, said via email that the fire department there occasionally conducts live burns using the National Fire Protection Association standards to determine whether a structure can be used.
Asbestos should be removed by an approved asbestos removal contractor, she wrote, citing the association’s standard.
Virginia Beach should have followed their procedures, which include getting an asbestos report that might have prevented the issues that have arisen, Hutcheson said.
“They thought because it was below the Green Line, they didn’t need to do that,” Hutcheson said.
“They made a mistake,” Cover added.
Hutcheson said only the national standard should be used in the city. He said Kalis’ office will also be involved in the process of ensuring safe conditions for live burns of acquired structures before training takes place.
The records obtained by the union show a battalion chief who oversaw personnel who initially were offered a chance to train at the house, on Thursday, March 29, forwarded information about the national standards for training with acquired structures to other department officials. The battalion chief was concerned about possible asbestos, Bailey said.
A training official in a March 30 email that included Deputy Chief Vance Cooper among its recipients canceled the April 8 burn because “it’s highly plausible the exterior of the acquired structure on Princess Anne Road contains asbestos.”
Officials had “reviewed the paperwork, and we cannot, at this time, confirm a demo company has verified the structure does not contain asbestos.”
Cooper on April 3 wrote in an email about “an opportunity to offer a live burn to county operations.”
“We had offered to B shift but it didn’t work out,” Cooper added.
Hutcheson said Cooper believed concerns about possible asbestos at the house had been resolved by training personnel before the training went ahead on April 15. Hutcheson said the deputy chief was not available for comment.
In a summary written within days of the training, an official whose name is redacted in records wrote that crews were told in a safety brief that asbestos could be present because the structure was old. A firefighter concerned about exposure to asbestos said he was not told that, according to the summary.
In May, an unidentified official wrote in an email that standards in the burn had been addressed.
“All paperwork was in order and processed correctly,” they wrote. “With the exception of the asbestos report.”
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