By Rob Shikina
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — With a firefighter training death earlier this year and another firefighter injured after falling out of a helicopter rescue basket last month, the firefighters union says Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves fails to place firefighter safety first and should be fired.
The Hawaii Fire Fighters Association’s comments came after video surfaced of a firefighter being knocked out of a rescue basket that was attached to a fire department helicopter.
“It’s time for him to go back to retirement,” HFFA President Bobby Lee said by phone Wednesday night regarding Neves, who was retired from Honolulu Fire Department when he was named as chief in 2013. “He’s not capable as a fire chief.”
Neves said HFD was continuing to investigate the Sept. 2 fall and the deadly water training incident off Diamond Head in June.
“(HFD) places the public and its personnel’s safety at the highest of priorities,” Neves said in a statement Wednesday night. He said when a firefighter is injured, the department investigates and reviews its operational, safety and training procedures. He said HFD is investigating the “recent unfortunate incidents and will take appropriate actions to address any issues that may have contributed to the events.”
Fire Capt. David Jenkins said that the Sept. 2 fall occurred during the rescue of a hiker at Diamond Head. The rescue basket hit a utility pole, causing the firefighter to fall about 30 feet. The hiker remained in the basket and was not hurt.
The injured firefighter has not returned to work, as is standard procedure, and the pilot is restricted from flying until the investigation is complete, Jenkins said. HFD submitted a report to the National Transportation Safety Board.
HFFA’s Lee said the fire department has been slow to enact changes after the fall and after the death. Firefighter Clifford Rigsbee death in the water-training incident was caused by injuries to his head and neck; he had sustained a broken neck and spinal cord injury, the Honolulu Medical Examiner’s office said.
Lee said firefighters still don’t know what happened in the water-training incident.
Lee said Neves’ attitude is that the job is dangerous and is continuing with business as usual. “His priorities are not in order, and he doesn’t put firefighter safety first,” Lee said. “If he isn’t going to protect our the firefighters, first and foremost, how can we protect the public?”
The department should have restricted firefighters from using rescue baskets after the fall, rather than waiting months for a formal investigation to conclude, Lee said.
He said the department’s response to the September helicopter accident was to hire an outside contractor to train more relief helicopter pilots.
Lee said the department has been bombarding firefighters with various types of training that add up to many certificates for firefighters, but lack the depth and quality needed to keep firefighters safe.
Such training, Lee said, creates a “false sense of security.” He added that some firefighters are concerned their training has been inadequate.
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