Firefighters exposed to asbestos in Everett

EVERETT — A training exercise that was meant to help Everett firefighters stay safe during real-life emergencies has put them at risk for lasting health problems.

A group of Everett firefighters was exposed to unknown levels of asbestos in July while chopping holes in city-owned houses known to contain the dangerous material, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries.

It likely wasn’t the first time.

A state consultant concluded that “all (Everett) fire department personnel at sometime during their career” likely have been exposed to asbestos during similar training because the department doesn’t have a system to check for the hazardous material and notify employees, according to the report from Enrique Gastelum, a hygiene consultation supervisor with Labor and Industries.

The asbestos exposure problem is serious enough that firefighters should be checked by a doctor on a regular basis to monitor their health, he concluded.

The findings led the city to stop all “destructive training” for firefighters.

That training often includes cutting holes in roofs or punching through ceilings and drywall. These techniques are used to ventilate smoke and flammable gases from burning buildings and to search for fire victims.

The city is working to complete the consultant’s recommendations, Everett spokeswoman Kate Reardon said Thursday. Policies are being rewritten and firefighters will receive training on the new policies, she said.

“We don’t want this to happen again,” she said. “We’re still trying to determine how this came to be. We still haven’t reached a conclusion.”

Meanwhile, the consultant’s investigation has left firefighters worried.

“We all thought we were safe, and we weren’t,” said Robert Downey, president of the firefighters’ union. “We weren’t wearing our breathing apparatus or anything and we were creating dust clouds. People are worried they brought it home to their families. It turns out we’ve been doing this all along.”

Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of mineral fiber and in the past was commonly used in building materials. The miniscule fibers can become airborne when the materials are damaged or burned. The fibers can be inhaled into a person’s lungs and cause serious health problems such as lung cancer.

Certain types of asbestos products, such as “popcorn” ceilings or pipe insulation, must be removed by a licensed asbestos abatement contractor. Legally, that must happen before the structure is demolished, said Jim Nolan, the supervisor for permitting and field enforcement with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

“Asbestos is a known carcinogenic, and there are no known safe levels. That’s why there are comprehensive rules about how to remove it and prevent exposure,” Nolan said.

A survey found asbestos in the houses along N. Broadway and Tower Street. The houses were slated for destruction to make room for the city’s new bus transfer station.

Before the asbestos was removed from all the houses, fire crews trained in shifts there for five days.

They weren’t told there was asbestos inside, Downey said.

“When you go to a fire, you assume it’s there, so you wear your mask,” he said. “We assumed they’d taken care of it. They sent us to do our job and we did it.”

Firefighters often don’t wear masks during those kinds of training exercises, said Frank Garza, administrator for the state fire training academy.

Everett firefighters are expected to wear protective gear anytime they think there is a potential to be exposed to dangerous materials, Reardon said.

“It is the common approach that firefighters practice they way they would perform,” she said.

Firefighters around the area say they aren’t allowed to train in a house or building until they complete a detailed checklist showing that any asbestos or other potential hazards have been removed or mitigated, a standard set by the National Fire Protection Association.

“It’s bad enough to go into a regular fire and be exposed to all kinds of hazards, but everything should be done to make sure firefighters are safe during training,” said Carl Peterson, director of the public fire protection division with the NFPA.

The association develops safety standards for fire protection that are adopted by fire departments around the country.

The Everett Fire Department has a policy to make sure hazards are removed before firefighters train at live fires, but there isn’t a policy for destructive training, Reardon said.

There also are detailed requirements that must be met if firefighters train on property that is privately owned, she said. Because the city owned the houses, those steps weren’t taken.

There’s no indication that anyone in the fire department knew there was asbestos in the houses, Reardon said.

A city employee happened to stop by and told the firefighters the houses contained asbestos, Downey said.

The department suspended the training. Firefighters were asked to clean their gear, department vehicles and the floors at the stations.

Union representatives told Fire Chief Murray Gordon they were going to file a complaint with the Department of Labor and Industries if a consultant wasn’t brought in, Downey said.

The consultant can’t impose fines, but the fire department must correct the hazards found. The report is not given to state Labor and Industries enforcement officers, but it must be shared with employees.

Even though the consultation involved public agencies, its findings are private, said Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor and Industries. She declined to discuss the report.

The consultant concluded the fire department didn’t exercise “due diligence” to let firefighters know they would be training in houses that contained asbestos, according to the report.

Gastelum also found that the department didn’t require firefighters to use respirators during July’s training and that employees don’t always use respirators during firefighting and cleanup. The fire department also doesn’t ensure that crews clean off their gear before they remove their respirators. Fire administrators and firefighters didn’t demonstrate that they knew how to identify and handle asbestos-containing materials during destructive trainings, Gastelum wrote. He made numerous recommendations to correct the hazards. Those recommendations included monitored health screenings for firefighters over a period of years.

Firefighters who were involved in July’s training were asked to fill out an exposure report with the state. The state found that 25 people had direct exposure to asbestos dust and 23 people had secondary exposure, Reardon said.

The city was researching a wellness program for firefighters before the incident and will continue to look at ways to monitors firefighters’ health.

Downey expects that the department’s more than 180 firefighters will file claims with the state. The union is working with an attorney to determine what steps should be taken to make sure firefighters receive proper medical attention and that crews are protected in the future, he said.

“We don’t want it to ever happen again. We want checks and balances,” he said.

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com.

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