Honolulu Fire Department Chief Manuel Neves is pushing to set up a third specialized emergency rescue company on Oahu over a chorus of objections from fire department personnel, their family members and the firefighters union, who say setting up the command without adequate training will endanger the lives of rescue workers and the public.
An assistant fire chief says the department has no fixed timeline to open the third company, known as Rescue 3, and that the department will make sure new rescue specialists will be adequately trained for the work they’re assigned to do.
But rank and file fire department personnel are voicing strong opposition. Among those speaking out against the chief are all six of Oahu’s rescue captains, who oversee the existing commands.
Meanwhile, Honolulu City Councilman Tommy Waters, who chairs the council’s Public Safety and Welfare Committee, has stepped in with a bill that would limit the fire chief’s ability to set up the unit without first ensuring all rescue specialists are properly trained.
Against this backdrop, in what union leaders call an act of retaliation, the commands opposing Neves have been removed from their former home bases into makeshift stations. One of the commands, formerly housed at a station in Mililani, has been relocated to a fire station basement and a trailer that environmental inspectors recently deemed unfit for human habitation because of mold.
The Hawaii Fire Fighters Association says the administration is needlessly rushing to set up Rescue 3. The union’s president, Bobby Lee, said the overarching concern is safety.
“The HFD currently does not have enough personnel to promote this new rescue company to meet the same level of training and qualification standards required by and from the two (2) current HFD rescue companies – Rescue 1 and Rescue 2,” the union wrote in recent testimony.
Lee said setting up the command too quickly can have tragic consequences.
“In our business, it’s not just a loss on paper,” he said. “People get hurt.”
In an interview, Assistant Fire Chief Socrates Bratakos said Oahu needs the command for redundancy, so there will be a backup in case an emergency happens when Rescue 1 and Rescue 2 are both tied up on a complicated call.
“There is no particular time frame” for setting up Rescue 3, he said. Although he acknowledged a written plan includes dates, he said they are not firm.
“It’s not set, it’s flexible,” he said. “There are times in there, but you don’t have to hit them.”
In addition, he said, leadership is showing deference to the captains.
“We have backed off and said we want to work with you guys because of course we think training is important,” he said.
Asked whether it is a good time to create something new when city finances will be stretched because of the COVID-19 crisis’ effect on tax revenue, Bratakos said setting up Rescue 3 would be a small cost in the department’s $140 million budget and was in the works before the virus.
Bratakos also denied moving Rescue 1 and Rescue 2 as retaliation. He said the department moved the commands to isolate and protect them because of COVID-19.
He said the quarters had been checked out by the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting and were up to code and inhabitable, despite a June 25 report by an environmental consulting firm saying the opposite.
In addition to rotting wood and water damage to walls of the trailer used to house Rescue 2 captains, the report by Environmental Risk Analysis of Honolulu said there was significant mold damage.
“ERA recommends that all occupants vacate the trailer until post-remedial verification indicates that the potential for health effects has been mitigated,” the report said. “Post-remedial verification air sampling should be performed prior to reentry.”
“If there is mold, we have ways to address that,” Bratakos said.
He also acknowledged one command didn’t have hot water for showers initially but said that had been fixed after two days.
Capt. Dean Stowell, who is one of Rescue 2’s captains, said the command had to live without hot showers for a lot more than two days.
“I have it in writing,” he said. “It was a week.”
He also said the space was so dirty that the firefighters had to spend the first day cleaning to try to make it habitable.
“We were out of service to take care of the public so we could clean it,” Stowell said.
There’s also confusion about whether the firefighters will be moving out of the new quarters eventually. While the stated purpose of moving the commands is to protect them from COVID-19, Neves told the union in a June 2 letter that the move is permanent.
Bratakos said that’s not correct.
“Is it permanent?” he said. “I wouldn’t say that.”
Asked about Neves’ letter calling the move permanent, Bratakos said, “It’s permanent for the time being.”
In the context of the union, he explained “permanent” is a term that means the commands won’t get extra pay for reporting to work at their new quarters.
“That’s not their permanent station,” he said.
Still, the big issue is training.
The duties of rescue commands are much different from those of regular firefighters. The rescue commands get called to pull people out of confined spaces like collapsed buildings. They fetch injured hikers off remote trails that can be reached only by helicopter. They’re required to be highly skilled underwater divers, able to rescue or retrieve victims not only from the open ocean but also from contaminated waters where there’s little visibility.
Each of these activities can require multiple levels of skill.
Some activities are strictly regulated by federal standards and highly complex. Confined space rescues, for instance, require not only skills with ropes, harnesses and rescue equipment but also the use of air monitoring systems and air lines.
Oahu’s two existing commands each consist of three teams, known as platoons, which take turns working in shifts. Each platoon has a captain, an engineer and three specialists, plus three to four specialists on the bench ready to work if a specialist is out sick or injured. That means each command essentially needs 15 starters plus backups.
One issue, Lee said, is the official position description for the rescue specialists needs to fully reflect all of the training and expertise that is required to do the job. Besides standard fire department first responder training, licenses and certifications include not much more than a commercial driver’s license, a basic life support training, safe boating certification, open water SCUBA, and passing of a rescue agility test sanctioned by the state Department of Human Resources.
It’s not just that these don’t capture all of the skills needed at times to deal with technical challenges like lowering a rescue worker into a narrow space with limited oxygen to rescue someone. It’s also that mere certification with little real-world experience working under pressure isn’t enough to make sure rescue workers and the public are safe.
“The issue is identifying the difference between certified and qualified,” Lee said.
“When I’m suspended on a half inch rope, seventy feet below a helicopter that’s flying two hundred feet off the ground I need my team mate controlling the rope to know what he is doing,” Eric Basta, a rescue specialist assigned to Rescue 2, wrote in recent testimony. “Rope Rescue skills are only one discipline of many that we are trained in. If HFD were to open a third rescue company in a rushed manner I’m afraid that not all personnel will have the proper training.”
Bratakos said the chief understands rescue specialists need experience as well as formal training. But he said the specialists don’t need to be fully trained in all of the disciplines to start working. As a start, he said, the rescue specialists can be certified and trained for the most common types of rescues, which require rope rescue and open water diving skills.
Specialized training for things like confined space rescues very rarely is needed, he said.
“We’re not going to let people do jobs they’re not prepared for,” Bratakos said.
To underscore their concerns, the union and rescue captains point to a 2016 incident in which a firefighter, Clifford Rigsbee, was killed during a jet ski training accident. The incident resulted in a lawsuit that cost Honolulu $5.25 million.
During trial, Stowell, who was in the first class of firefighters trained and certified in operating jet skis and later an instructor, testified that the department had set up a situation that was not safe by lowering the criteria for firefighters to be certified to use jet skis.
“Jet Skis are not for everybody,” he said. “And if you don’t have the water background or the swimming capability to get yourself out of it, you’re — that’s a huge liability to ask of somebody and to ask of an instructor to allow that to happen.”
Stowell, who is now one of Rescue 2’s three captains, said the rescue commands are concerned something similar will happen if people are pushed into the job too soon.
Bratakos stressed the department is committed to safety and said he understood the concerns about firefighters getting hurt or killed on the job.
“That’s the worst thing that can happen to us,” he said about a firefighter getting killed.
Waters’ bill essentially would prevent Rescue 3 from going forward any time soon by requiring the fire chief to assess the requirements and certifications needed to be a rescue specialist and create a long-term plan to create additional safeguards.
“Protecting the public while protecting our firefighters is of paramount importance to the City,” the measure says, “and it is imperative that these emergency rescue personnel are trained and remain qualified at the highest standards to enable them to perform the life-saving rescue work that they do every day.”
Waters refrained from moving the bill out of committee during a June 18 meeting and called on the two sides to work together. He also asked Neves to resume training, which has been stopped since October.
After the meeting Bratakos said the rescue units are free to train and that only formal training had stopped.
Waters did not respond to a request for comment.
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