State cites Virginia Beach for ‘serious violations’ in fire department training burn of house near Pungo

A home on the 2000 block of Princess Anne Road was burned during a Virginia Beach Fire Department training event on April 15. [Via Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters]

COURTHOUSE — State occupational safety and health officials cited Virginia Beach this month for serious violations related to a training event in which firefighters burned a home near Pungo in April so they could train outside it though the department had not determined whether asbestos was present at the site.

Later testing by the city found asbestos there, though city public safety officials have called it a small amount and said firefighters and the public were not endangered. 

An asbestos assessment required under a national standard for training with acquired structures was never completed before the training, though email correspondence showed some firefighters initially offered the chance to train at the house rejected it because they believed it might contain asbestos. 

City Auditor Lyndon Remias issued a critical report this summer that said the department was negligent in its handling of the training and could have exposed firefighters and members of the public to asbestos. The site of the training was at a property on the 2000 block Princess Anne Road near the Ashville Park and Sherwood Lakes subdivisions and north of the Pungo village area.

Virginia Beach Fire Chief David Hutcheson on Tuesday, Sept. 25, said the department and city have improved procedures to prevent such a thing from happening again. Steps taken include using city legal and housing officials to ensure structures for future live burns have necessary checks performed before training. 

“It was minimal,” Hutcheson said, speaking of the amount of asbestos found at the site after the training was completed. “It doesn’t minimize that we didn’t get the check-off done. … We certainly don’t want to repeat mistakes.”

Hutcheson declined to discuss whether anyone has been disciplined, as the auditor’s report had recommended, but the chief said, “We’ve done corrective action so this doesn’t happen again.” In a response to Remias’ report this summer, Hutcheson wrote that “appropriate discipline” would be issued, as The Independent News first reported in June.

Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters Local 2924, a union that represents most city firefighters, sought records related to the training and filed complaints with regulatory agencies and the city auditor, who works directly for the City Council and not the city administration.

Bill Bailey, president of the union and a former city firefighter, said  concerns have been validated by the auditor’s findings and, more recently, the citations from the state.

“They were required to ensure the house was asbestos free before burning it,” Bailey said during a telephone interview on Tuesday, Sept. 25. “They didn’t do that. … 

“They have a responsibility to protect the community and the firefighters, and they didn’t do that,” Bailey added. “If we didn’t say anything, nobody would have known.”

Violations found by the state include failure to ensure current fit testing for protective gear for two people and not providing training for 14 firefighters involved in “the intentional burning of a home that contained asbestos.” 

And the city was cited by the state because a needed asbestos inspection was not conducted prior to burning the home, “exposing employees to respiratory hazards.”

“A subsequent bulk sample taken from the property’s remnants contained asbestos,” one of the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Compliance citation notes. 

Spokespeople for neighboring fire departments in Chesapeake and Suffolk, both of which serve significant rural areas, told The Independent News this summer that structures must be assessed for asbestos based upon the National Fire Protection Association’s standard to govern procedures for training involving acquired structures. This includes identifying and removing asbestos before training.

The state did not recommend fines for Virginia Beach, but the city will need to demonstrate it has addressed the issues. Hutcheson said those improvements already have been undertaken, including better procedures and training for personnel. City officials are working with the state regarding the findings, the chief added.

Virginia Beach has an opportunity to respond to the violations and have an informal conference before the matter, which still is considered an open, is resolved, according to the paperwork accompanying the citations. 

The Independent News obtained the citations from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry through an open records request. However, the newspaper did not obtain additional files it requested because the matter is still open.

On Tuesday, Sept. 25, City Councilmember John Moss, who holds an at-large seat, said he has requested additional information about the state findings and related context from the city staff. 

Following the report this summer by Remias, Moss asked a number of questions about the incident and the response of departmental leadership involved in the training, noting then that the city was fortunate this did not lead to greater consequences.

“We were just lucky,” Moss reiterated on Tuesday, “and luck is not a strategy.”

© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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