UPDATE 6/16/16: Firefighter Clifford Rigsbee has died from his injuries. View the full update here.
A Honolulu firefighter was hospitalized in critical condition Tuesday after being pulled from waters off Diamond Head.
The incident occurred at around 10:45 a.m. during a rescue watercraft training exercise.
Honolulu Fire Department Chief Manuel Neves confirmed the firefighter’s identity as Clifford Rigsbee, 63.
He is a 21-year veteran of the department and currently assigned to the Waikiki Fire Station.
Fire officials say the training involved personal rescue watercraft operations through rough surf, and Rigsbee and another firefighter were training near a surf spot known as Suicides.
According to Neves, Rigsbee was on the sled while the second firefighter operated the watercraft. “They were doing their practice maneuvers, and the operator looked back and he noticed that Rigsbee was in the water floating unconsciously, so he jumped in and rendered aid right away,” he said.
An off-duty firefighter helped bring the men to Makalei Beach Park, where additional rescue personnel treated and transported them to the hospital. The second firefighter has since been treated and released.
Neves says it’s still not clear what caused Rigsbee to fall unconscious. “We don’t know what the mechanism of harm is, whether it was an accident, something happened, or just a medical condition that was pre-existing,” he said.
Neves said surf was high along Oahu’s south shore and there were strong winds at the time.
Fire officials say Rigsbee is a highly trained Firefighter III, who serves as second-in-command for his battalion.
“He’s a very seasoned individual. He’s an attribute to our department. He’s a trainer in almost everything that we have, so he’s very well-respected in the department,” Neves said. “Today we’re asking for everybody’s thoughts and prayers to go out to firefighter Rigsbee, his family, as well as his Honolulu Fire Department family, because it’s very trying on all of us.”
Neves says Rigsbee’s family is flying in from the mainland.
Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, knows the injured firefighter and is saddened by what happened.
He also questioned the need for firefighters to use these rescue watercraft when lifeguards are usually the first in the water.
Lee says the department has been using rescue watercraft since the mid ’90s, but there’s really no good reason for firefighters to have them.
“We continue to question why are we still doing jet skis. Because of the type of operation we do, it really comes down to what is the reason for having the jet ski for the fire department,” he said.
Lee adds that the Ocean Safety Department or the lifeguards are usually patrolling the water with their watercraft when anyone runs into trouble.
“You’re questioning whether it’s really for life safety or for body retrieval in the end, because we get there minutes, much, much later,” he said. “The real question to ask is do we need this piece of equipment or not? Or should this piece of equipment just stay with Ocean Safety and not with the fire department?”
Fire officials say rescue watercraft use and training is critical.
“The service we provide to the community is called all hazards. From minute to minute, we’re not sure if we’re going to be going to a raging house fire, or an auto accident, or someone with a medical condition, or someone missing in the ocean, so we train constantly,” Neves said. “This program is a program that we are very proud of, the rescue water craft program, and they are constantly in the water among all the other training that they have to conduct.
“We might have to swim. We might have to use a surfboard. We might use the jet ski. We might use a boat. We might use the helicopter. We might use all of that, so it doesn’t really, one size doesn’t fit all,” he added. “We have a whole arsenal of things, a lot of redundancy built into our training and into our operations.”
“There is an inherent danger in firefighting, although we do take all the appropriate, necessary measures to keep ourselves safe,” said HFD Capt. David Jenkins. “Training is the way how we keep ourselves in tune with our job, how we maintain our competency, and the level of safety. Training is a critical part of our career of firefighting.”
The department operates 10 rescue watercraft on Oahu.