Fire chief addresses safety measures, changes made after recent accidents

Honolulu’s fire chief says immediate changes were made in the wake of recent accidents — one of them deadly, the other serious.

It’s the first time Chief Manuel Neves has directly answered questions about safety since Wednesday, when we revealed witness video that shows a firefighter falling out of a helicopter rescue basket that got snagged on a utility line.

HFD said the firefighter was in stable condition after the fall, but his injuries put him in the hospital, requiring surgery and ongoing therapy. A pending federal investigation calls the injuries “serious.”

The department says medical privacy laws limit how much it can tell the public about the severity of last month’s helicopter accident. Neves says HFD did not intentionally try to downplay how bad it was.

“When we asked the condition of our firefighter, they (medical personnel) said stable and alert,” Neves said. “It wasn’t an attempt on our part to try to confuse anybody or misstate or play down the seriousness of that incident.”

That was among our many questions for the chief, which we got answered when he faced the cameras Friday.

We also asked, what interim changes are being made in helicopter rescues?

“Once the incident occurred, we gathered up every piece of equipment that was included in that operation,” Neves said.

HFD also checked out the helicopter and signed off that it was okay to keep flying. The pilot, their senior flier, is grounded on desk duty until the federal and internal investigations are done. They’ve re-evaluated other pilots, and added proficiency tests.

As for the rescue basket, “we removed the Billy Pugh net, or that basket, and restricted its use to over ocean, so it’s not being used on land at any time,” Neves said. (Billy Pugh is the basket manufacturer.)

“Even using it over the water, which is okay, you still have to come back over land to drop the person off,” said Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, the union representing the workforce. “So there really wasn’t much effort put in to stopping it right away and reevaluating the operation.”

The chief says whether to strap in or restrain a rescuer or passenger was and will remain, for now, optional and at the call of the incident commander or captain.

“The way the basket is designed, it’s designed by NASA,” Neves said. “It was used in the Space Shuttle recovery program, so the basket is designed in a certain way that it secures the patient and the rescuer into the basket, and unless there’s a really extreme situation, like what occurred here, then people are secured in the basket, and whether or not we do employ safety restraints in the future, I don’t know right now.”

“Obviously it didn’t work, because we had someone fall out,” Lee said. “At a minimum, they need to take a step back and consider when do they absolutely have to use it.”

“The design and the engineering of the basket itself has inherent safety features in it,” Neves said.

“Which unfortunately proved deficient on that day already,” Always Investigating pointed out. “Even though you are using them over the ocean, if someone is lifted high and it could spill again, shouldn’t you be making some immediate changes?”

“The changes that were made, we felt were appropriate for the risk that we have,” Neves said. “We can ‘what if’ if people will fall out. We never had an incident where someone fell out until there was an extreme situation like we had here where we impacted into a utility pole.”

Always Investigating also asked, what about changes in ocean training after Cliff Rigsbee lost his life due to injuries from watercraft training this summer?

“All riders instead of being on the sled, they’re going to be riding with the operator,” Neves said, “so either sitting or standing with the operator on the ski.”

HFD also now wants two rescue crafts in the ocean for any drill, whether both are theirs or one is from Ocean Safety. Two master instructors got additional classes within the past month, all operators and instructors will get a midterm evaluation, and they’re looking at new safety equipment to add to the watercraft.

Several investigations are ongoing meanwhile:

  • The helicopter incident is under federal NTSB investigation.
  • Both the helicopter and jet ski cases are internal investigations too.
  • State and federal work injury divisions are investigating the water death. On Thursday, the mayor told Always Investigating he wants the fire commission to also dig into the incidents and review safety policies and procedures. The fire commission chair says they’re checking with corporation counsel on how soon the topic can get on their regular meeting agenda or whether a special meeting may be called.

“We’re open to any suggestions,” Neves said. “If anyone can come in and help us with our operation and recommend this is done, we’re very open and appreciative of their concern and our participation in our process.”

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