The Virginia Beach Firefighters group, which represents approximately 90 percent of the city’s 500 firefighters recently filed complaints with both federal and state agencies about a training exercise, claiming that fire officials endangered its members and the public when they burned an empty house that contained asbestos. The city and the firefighter’s group agree the house contained the hazardous material, but how much was there and when fire officials learned of its existence is being investigated.
The two-story home was burned April 15. The house dates to the 1930s, and it was offered for the training exercise by its owner, who knew one of the fire officials.
The Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters group reported the incident to the FBI, Environmental Protection Agency, and the state departments of environmental quality, labor, and industry, as well as occupational safety and health. They also notified the city’s auditor.
“This act appears to be a clear violation of federal and state environmental laws and cannot be tolerated or ignored,” Bill Bailey, a retired Virginia Beach firefighter and president of the organization wrote in a statement. “This incident was reported so that the appropriate city, state, and federal agencies could fully and thoroughly investigate this incident and take appropriate action. The trust of the public as well as the firefighters have been damaged and can only be regained by a complete, transparent, and thorough investigation along with appropriate consequences.”
City officials claim only a small amount of the substance was found. They also say it was limited to an area near the fireplace and wasn’t discovered until weeks after the house was burned. They did admit that mistakes were made and said they have taken steps to prevent something like this from happening again.
Asbestos is still found in older buildings but is not considered hazardous unless it becomes airborne. Proper removal and disposal of materials containing asbestos can be costly. None of the firefighters involved were aware that asbestos was present, Bailey said. Neither did residents who stood by and watched. Bailey estimated that among the crowd were 20 to 30 children.
“It was like stadium seating out there,” he said. “People were pulling their cars over to watch.”
About a week before the burn date, a battalion chief wrote about his suspicions that asbestos might be present. The burn was canceled the following day. Then, four days later, the district chief who was friends with the homeowner scheduled the event for the following weekend. “We had offered it to B shift, but it didn’t work out,” the district chief wrote as he assigned it to the C shift instead. He did not indicate the reason behind the cancellation.
Scott Kalis, the city’s occupational safety and health manager, said he was told about the possibility of asbestos in the house about a month after it was burned. Tests conducted at the site confirmed its existence but revealed only a small amount. “Because of its fire-retardant characteristics, it may have been used in that area near the fireplace,” Kalis said.
Fire Chief David Hutcheson said the district chief who scheduled it thought that the department’s training center had already reviewed the battalion chief’s suspicions. “We missed some paperwork opportunities and we own that,” Hutcheson said. “But there was nothing that was done sneakily. It was simply an oversight.”