Honolulu firefighters are reporting injuries at a rapidly growing rate, and a rate that’s much higher than the national average.
Always Investigating has been looking into concerns about firefighter safety since last week, when questions were raised by a video of a firefighter falling from a rescue helicopter net during a rescue at Diamond Head last month. The firefighter was seriously injured.
Earlier this summer, firefighter Cliff Rigsbee died after getting hurt during ocean rescue training.
We asked for firefighter injury numbers to see if the recent incidents are a fluke or a trend.
The rate of injuries has more than doubled, according to data we reviewed spanning more than five years. The Honolulu Fire Department says that’s mostly due to more diligent reporting and more assignments, especially training.
The union says the numbers are a major red flag.
“Being a firefighter is an inherently dangerous job,” said HFD Chief Manuel Neves at a Friday press conference about the September helicopter rescue injury. “Our goal is to have zero injuries, but that may not be realistic.”
Neves said out of 26 water-training reports over the past 12 years, eight were serious enough to sideline workers from the job during recovery. As for helicopters — just a few years of helicopter-specific reports were compiled — just one incident, the Sept. 2 fall, was on the books from 2014-2016.
“It wasn’t just an injury. He could have died. He seriously could have died,” said Hawaii Fire Fighters Association union president Bobby Lee of the rescuer who fell. “We’re not even sure, because of his type of injury, whether he is even going to be able to come back to work or not, so that’s always up in the air when you get a serious injury.”
The chief pointed to HFD standards that he says meet or exceed fire service requirements, and that they’ve been ramping up training continually to earn and maintain a national accreditation only a couple hundred other firefighting agencies have achieved.
Always Investigating asked, with all of the accreditation work and training, is it panning out on the front lines with fewer injuries, more or about the same?
“We’re averaging about the same. There’s no spike in injuries,” Neves said.
We pressed for specific numbers year by year, not just averages, and here is what we found: The number of injuries reported has more than doubled since 2011, from 143 to more than 300 last year, and it’s pacing even higher for this year so far.
The chief says that’s due to their volume of work and reporting rules.
“Even if you have a slight twinge in your arm and it may result in nothing, we require you to fill a form,” Neves said.
The union blames training for much of the increase. Lee says Rapid Intervention Training (RIT) sessions this year, which were widespread exercises involving almost all operational staff, caused many sprains and strains.
One course — crawling through an ever-narrower tube to simulate confined-space rescues — gave one non-rescue worker claustrophobia.
The union had tried to block the mandatory training at the Hawaii Labor Relations Board alleging lack of consultation, but the board ruled otherwise. The training proceeded, but with a compromise that people could opt to watch instead.
“For our firefighters that are drivers or captains that normally don’t experience that level of physical exertion because of the type of job they have now, those were the ones that really more at risk of injury,” Lee said. “But what was surprising was even our firefighters, that this is what they do every day, still incurred injuries too.”
Lee added their concerns go beyond just the large-scale training exercises.
“The injuries here locally are going up, and it’s getting worse in regard to the national average,” Lee said. “It’s going well above the national average.”
We looked into the national rate and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, public-sector fire protection injuries happen at an average rate of 12.1 per 100 firefighters. Honolulu’s rate stood at 23 per 100 for the last full calendar year.
“Two-thirds of them result in no lost time. It’s just a precautionary form that someone filed,” Neves said.
We also looked at how many injuries put workers off the job to get well. Honolulu tracks below the national average rate for lost-time work injuries –- at a rate of 5.6 per 100 compared to the national average of 7.6 per 100. The lost-time case-count hovers around the 50s and 60s and shows no specific trend in either direction.
“Even though the time lost is similar (year over year), every injury is an opportunity for something much worse, so we look at the actual injuries, not just the time lost,” Lee said. “Training is supposed to be something you go through to help prepare you for the job you do, but you’re not supposed to get hurt or die in training.”
The chief said any time something happens — in the field or in training — post-action briefings are done immediately to look for corrective steps going forward.
“The Honolulu Fire Department places public and its personnel safety at the highest of priorities and incorporates safety in all of our programs,” Neves said.
We asked department officials what lessons they’ve learned to cut down on injuries during tough classes and were told better physical fitness — train for the training so to speak. Additional changes include more warm up, cool down and hydration, having instructors be consistent in their safety briefing instructions, watching closely for fatigue or signs of discomfort, taking more frequent breaks, and reminding staff to take time-out when needed, emphasizing that they are not expected to “push through” despite feeling pain.