Nearly a month after Honolulu firefighters were exposed to asbestos at the fatal Marco Polo high-rise blaze, some of the protective gear they wore is just now being taken out of service.
Always Investigating first uncovered the asbestos concerns.
It took more than 120 firefighters hours to extinguish the seven-alarm blaze at the 1970s building that has asbestos among its materials, with multiple fire floors being considered a hazmat scene by the Department of Health.
As Always Investigating first reported, just after the blaze, firefighters and the Honolulu Fire Commission questioned why the protective gear crews wear weren’t required to be bagged at the scene, and instead went back to multiple firehouses in 15 engines and six trucks.
The gear likely went through on-site washers at each station but now, firefighters have been told to bag up their jackets, pants, and hoods, take them out of service, and drop them off at HFD’s main Waipahu storeroom by this Friday.
Firefighters were worried right after the blaze because of the old building’s asbestos, and no management instructions to handle gear any differently. The matter came up at a fire commission meeting last month when commissioner Max Hannemann asked the fire chief: “If it was asbestos in terms of the turnouts (protective outerwear) … before returning to stations, is there any different procedure?”
Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves answered: “There’s no difference. We have a decontamination process and if we determine the turnouts are not usable, then we take them out of service.”
Now, with the directive to deliver some equipment to a storeroom nearly a month later, Hawaii Fire Fighters Association president Bobby Lee tells Always Investigating: “I think the real question at this point is why the turnout gear wasn’t bagged at the scene? And even with that said, how come it took almost a month to figure out that the gear has to be collected?”
Always Investigating asked if the turnouts from Marco Polo would have been cycled back into usage by now?
“Oh, yeah,” Lee said. “As soon as they came back from the fire, I’m sure they were sent to be put through the washer, the extractor, and then given back to the firefighters to use on a daily basis.”
Would the extractors have removed all asbestos?
“No, I don’t think any of the manufacturers for these extractors can guarantee that the asbestos can be removed,” Lee said. “As far as I know, the procedures should have been to bag their personal protective equipment at the scene and then take it to the HFD storeroom to be properly addressed, either with a contractor that deals with hazardous materials or work with the manufacturer of the gear.”
After collecting the gear this week, we’re told HFD will now figure out what to do with it after reviewing industry standards and federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and consulting with decontamination experts and other metro fire departments.
Lee was at an industry conference off-island when we reached out to him to ask about the issue, and he says he then talked with executives from the company that supplies HFD’s protective gear, who are also at the same conference.
“The reaction we got from them was they were pretty surprised,” Lee said. “Their feeling was once the firefighters are exposed to asbestos, then that gear should have been collected at the scene, bagged, and taken out of service.”
Always Investigating was first to report last month that Hawaii Occupational Safety and Health (HIOSH), the state Labor Department’s workplace safety division, is investigating Marco Polo issues including firefighter asbestos exposure. The Labor Department confirmed today that’s still ongoing.
“HIOSH is looking into the situation,” Lee said. “They have been down to the building and dealing with the building owners, and I hear they’re also now coming into the fire stations to talk to our personnel that were at the fire.”
Lee questions if the equipment collection is going far enough.
“I didn’t hear anything about them collecting gloves or looking at some of the other gear that the firefighters have,” Lee said, “also the fact of the gear going back to the stations in all of the fire trucks. So you potentially have exposure or contamination in all of the fire trucks, and that leads to now the potential of contaminants in the stations.”
“Then again, once our firefighters get their gear back and they’re using their gear again,” Lee said, “they could be taking contaminants home to their families and of course when they respond to alarms in people’s homes. The danger with asbestos, it can be one exposure to asbestos that can lead to cancer years down the road.”
We reached out to the fire department to ask why the equipment is being collected now. They sent a statement Thursday evening that said it’s due to new information from the Department of Health.
DOH confirmed the presence of asbestos to Always Investigating last month soon after the fire, and told us today the firefighter exposure issue is not under its purview, but federal and state labor regulators (OSHA and HIOSH) instead.
The full HFD statement follows:
“Due to new information received from the State of Hawaii’s Department of Health (DOH), the HFD has taken additional precautions to ensure the integrity of its personal protective equipment (PPE) and the safety of its personnel.
The health and safety of its personnel are always the HFD’s highest priority.
All HFD personnel are trained in the proper use and maintenance of their PPE and directed to follow these procedures at emergency incidents.
Depending on the potential exposure due to given assignments at the incident, PPEs go through gross decontamination at the scene. The PPEs are then bagged and further cleaned in HFD industrial extractors.
The HFD continues to cooperate with the DOH and the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Occupational Safety and Health Division to determine any significant exposure at the Marco Polo incident.”