Ed. — This story original appeared in print on Friday, June 8. It was posted in September 2018 for archival purposes. An earlier online version can be found at this link.
BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE – An investigation prepared for the Virginia Beach City Council found the fire department mishandled a training event in which a house along Princess Anne Road was burned after concerns had been raised about asbestos there and despite the absence of required documentation about asbestos.
The report by City Auditor Lyndon Remias found the fire department was “negligent” in its handling of the training and could have exposed firefighters and citizens to a “hazardous air pollutant in the form of asbestos.”
City officials have said they believe no one was exposed to asbestos, the presence of which — a small amount, they stressed — was confirmed at one area of the site weeks after the home had been burned so firefighters could train outside the structure.
Department personnel failed to follow procedures related to burning the house on Princess Anne Road across the street from the Sherwood Lakes neighborhood, Remias found. He recommended appropriate discipline for those involved in the incident. In a response to the auditor’s findings, city Fire Chief David Hutcheson wrote that a number of improvements to the approval process for such training are being implemented and that the department “will ensure appropriate discipline is issued for this incident.” The report does not specify who might be disciplined.
Remias’ findings generally are consistent with explanations offered by officials who detailed planning and communication failures related to the training. Deputy City Manager Steven Cover, who oversees public safety and formerly served as city fire chief, and Hutcheson discussed the matter during an interview with The Independent News on Monday, June 4, and in a briefing to the City Council on Tuesday, June 5.
The confirmation of asbestos at the site came after Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters Local 2924, a union that represents most city firefighters, sought records related to the training through the Freedom of Information Act. “This never should have happened,” said Bill Bailey, president of the union and a retired city firefighter, during an interview on Wednesday, June 6. “Burning a building with any amount of asbestos in it isn’t acceptable.”
The union raised concerns with regulatory agencies and, among others, the auditor, who is an appointed official reporting directly to the City Council. State occupational safety regulators, among others, are investigating, The Independent News has confirmed.
Remias presented findings to Mayor Louis Jones and members of the City Council and he had met previously with City Manager Dave Hansen about his review of the incident. Due to the seriousness of the issues, Remias asked to brief the council. That discussion took place during an open meeting on Tuesday, June 5, when the auditor summarized overall findings. The city on Wednesday, June 6, released the report and additional documents to The Independent News.
“What it really boils down to is there was concern that a house on Princess Anne Road located in the Pungo section was burned as part of the fire training process,” Remias said on Tuesday, June 5, speaking to the City Council. He said an “important process of ensuring that the structure did not contain asbestos, that key step, was not taken prior to the burn occurring.”
Remias said that meant citizens and some firefighters may not have known the structure contained asbestos, though an earlier effort to conduct the training had been cancelled by a training official after concerns about asbestos were raised. “From documentation we reviewed, the other issue that caused some concern was the fact that those in chain of command of approving the burn were aware of strong probability that there was in fact asbestos in the house,” Remias said.
Hansen, in a memorandum to the City Council on Friday, June 1, wrote that Remias’ report “identifies operational failures” and that fire department identified steps “to ensure nothing like this will ever happen again.”
“To be clear, while it appears highly unlikely that any members of the public came into contact with materials from this fire, people may have concerns,” Hansen wrote.
The city will reach out to those who live nearby and determine whether there is any need to establish health monitoring based upon those conversations.
Some 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. The house has 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 also 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 training. The Sherwood Lakes subdivision is across the road, which is why the department will contact that neighborhood.
In his report, the auditor was critical of training personnel and a senior leader in the department, Deputy Chief Vance Cooper, who knows the owner of the house that was burned. Cooper could not be reached for comment, and Hutcheson said the deputy chief was not available to be interviewed.
During the meeting at City Hall, City Councilmember John Moss said he wanted a better understanding of a process that could have led to greater consequences for the city.
“We really got lucky here,” Moss said.
Moss, who holds an at large seat, also discussed Cooper. In records obtained by the union, the deputy chief is copied on an email canceling an initial effort to burn the house after firefighters raised concerns about the possibility of asbestos. The email also acknowledged paperwork about the presence of asbestos had not been completed.
Cooper later offered the house to another shift, which accepted the opportunity to train. Hutchenson, in an interview, told The Independent News that Cooper believed training staff in the department had resolved that issue before the house was burned on April 15.
Records obtained by the union show a battalion chief who oversaw personnel initially 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 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.
The auditor references this email correspondence in his report.
During the meeting at City Hall, Moss said this of Cooper: “So he knew there was a high probability [of asbestos], yet he’s the one who directed to proceed with the burn. So that’s not a direction out of ignorance. That’s a decision out of risk taking, which fortunately in this case had low consequences.”
Hutcheson told the City Council the deputy chief did not take it from one shift of firefighters to another without expecting asbestos issues had been addressed. “What occurred here was that he put it in to the training center group, who then made the decision that we were good,” Hutcheson said. “That’s where it happened.”
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 and reviewed by The Independent News.
Bailey 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.
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.
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 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.
Hutcheson also 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.
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, only 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.
Though the auditor recommended discipline for personnel involved in the incident, city administration, not the City Council itself, disciplines personnel. On Monday, June 4, Cover and Hutcheson declined to discuss specifics because such actions are personnel matters. However, Cover said, “The people who made mistakes there – it’s going to be addressed.”
The auditor’s report recommended that department administration should neither be involved in obtaining documentation for a live burn nor instruct personnel to conduct training without proper documentation in place.
Hutcheson, in his response, wrote that it is not unusual for a chief officer to act as a liaison between the department and a property owner, and it is not unusual for structure used for training to come from someone who knows a firefighter. Hutcheson wrote that the responsibility for ensuring paperwork is completed rests with training personnel.
Remias also recommended that all firefighters who were at the live burn should be able to fill out paperwork about potential exposure to asbestos. And he wrote that the department should implement a protocol for live burns so there is communication between shifts, among other recommendations.
Hutcheson on Tuesday said recommendations for improvements are being put into place. “We have built a better process to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
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