By Gary T. Kubota
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — Facing union attack after the death of one firefighter and serious injury of another, Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves on Friday defended his performance and described the criticism as “misinformation.”
Neves said his department follows safety training guidelines and that the number of injuries among firefighters is about the same as in prior years.
“There’s no spike in injuries,” Neves said. “The HFD places the public and its personnel safety at the highest of priorities.”
Hawaii Fire Fighters Association President Bobby Lee on Wednesday called for Neves to step down as chief and said the department has been slow to start changes in safety and in investigating the causes of the accidents.
Firefighter Clifford Rigsbee died in a water training accident involving a personal watercraft and sled off Diamond Head in June, and a firefighter suffered serious injuries at Diamond Head when he fell 30 feet from a helicopter rescue basket that was also carrying a hiker Sept. 2.
The injured firefighter has not returned to work.
Lee said firefighters still don’t know the cause of the fatal water training incident in June.
In a news conference Friday afternoon at fire headquarters in Kakaako, Neves said the department takes the union’s criticism “very seriously” and that the department hasn’t done a good enough job communicating with the union.
“We really respect their opinion,” he said.
Neves said the incidents are still under investigation and would not comment on them. But the chief said he has taken interim measures to improve safety following the two accidents.
He said his department is cooperating with other agencies in investigations and that no deadline has been set to complete them.
Following the Sept. 2 fall, the department set aside the equipment and helicopter involved in the rescue and also grounded the pilot, he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board later allowed the helicopter to return to use. The rescue basket will only be used over the ocean in the future. He said pending the outcome of the investigation, he’s maintaining the procedures that allow the captain on the scene to make the decision on whether harnesses are used.
Neves said in water training exercises, rather than having one rider in a sled, someone will be sitting or standing next to a personal watercraft operator. Neves said the department is also requiring two watercraft during ocean drills.
He said the department has sent master instructors of jet skis to receive more training in the last month, and will be evaluating all the operators and master instructors.
Neves said of the 1,200 firefighters and close to 50,000 calls answered each year, the number of injuries reported is relatively low. The number of injuries related to watercraft driven by firefighters was about two a year, and the department meets or exceeds safety standards, he said.
“We know the program is sound. It’s run safely,” he said.
“But I also want to say, even two is too much for us. As a chief, we want to get that down to zero.”
Neves said in reviewing three years of incidences, the Sept. 2 fall was the first time a report was made of a firefighter injury related to a helicopter operation.
He said the department received accreditation in 2015 through a third party-review by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.
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