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N.J. fire department proposes joint task force, training facility in response to fatal shipboard fire

Officials are proposing the creation of a special joint task force to consider legislative and other changes in response to the deadly fire at Port Newark


Newark firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr ., 49, died that night.

Andrew Mills

By Ted Sherman

NEWARK, N.J. — Amid mounting criticism over the Newark Fire Department’s response to the tragic shipboard blaze that killed two veteran firefighters, officials are proposing the creation of a special joint task force to consider legislative and other changes in response to the deadly fire at Port Newark in July.

At the same time, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said the city is considering a marine firefighting training facility that would be located at the port.

Additionally, he said the city will be creating a specialized Newark Fire Division group that would be given advanced training for responding to shipboard fires at the port, he said.

The proposed moves come just days after a months-long investigation by NJ Advance Media published this past week detailed how firefighters in state’s largest city had not been prepared to fight a blaze in the largest port on the East Coast — and had little idea of what to do once they were called upon to put it out on the evening of July 5 .

Newark firefighters Augusto “Augie” Acabou, 45, and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr ., 49, who were trapped in a burning vessel loaded with 1,200 highly combustible junk cars and trucks bound for West Africa, died that night. Acabou was found wedged tightly between a car and a sports utility vehicle, ensnared in the tie-down webbing that held the two vehicles in place on the deck.

Both men were posthumously promoted to captain after their deaths. On Saturday, officials in Union Township held a memorial ceremony renaming the street where Brooks lived after the fallen firefighter.

Baraka said he has met with Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake , D- Essex , vice-chair of the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee , who he said was spearheading his proposed joint task force effort to “mobilize federal and state legislators” once the investigation reports come out.

“I have had discussions with her about a legislative agenda that would support our goals,” the mayor said.

However, he added that any corrective action would need wait until formal investigations by the U.S. Coast Guard , the National Transportation Safety Board , and other agencies into the deadly incident at Port Newark are completed.

“Obviously, we cannot put anything into play until the investigation is concluded and released and we have solid, expert recommendations about how to proceed so that the kind of tragedy we had on the Grande Costa d’Avorio will never happen again,” said Baraka. “When we get the report, we will follow it to the letter.”

It could take a year or more before those findings are made public.

That delay was criticized by fire union officials. While supporting the idea of a task force, they expressed frustration that the city has yet to take any concrete action since the fire.

“Today, the Newark Fire Division is no better trained than before July 5 when it comes to Port Newark,” complained Anthony Tarantino , the recently retired president of the Newark Fire Officers Union . “There are multiple plans that the mayor has been presented to start training immediately.”

As for the task force, Baraka said it would be “rash and imprudent to put plans into place before they receive the reports’ recommendations.

“We want to proceed with a blueprint that is in line with the findings and based on data, to ensure the most effective response as we build our coalition and take appropriate action,” he said.

Timberlake did not respond to a message left with her chief of staff.

The department’s lack of training was underscored in dispatch records, harrowing audio recordings and incident reports filed by senior officers and the fire chief, which were obtained by NJ Advance Media under the state’s public records law.

Among the most critical miscues, the reports showed that firefighters did not know they needed an international shipboard adapter to connect their hoses to the ship’s internal standpipe system to pump the volumes of water needed to battle the blaze, allowing it to spread. Every oceangoing ship carries those adapters, according to firefighting experts.

Two fire captains wrote that they had never been trained to deal with a shipboard fire. One said he had never been on a cargo ship.

The Newark Fire Department had not conducted shipboard training in nearly a decade, records revealed, and was woefully ill-equipped for what it had faced, according to firefighting experts.

In fact, when firefighters arrived at Berth 18 where the Grande Costa d’Avorio was tied up, they failed to follow what experts say would have been standard operating procedures in any marine fire — if there are no lives at risk, as had been the case that night, the general rule is to stand back, cool it down and let it burn itself out.

That is what happened after the U.S. Coast Guard’s unified command took over the scene after the two firefighters went missing. But the news organization’s investigation found that Newark did not even have standard operating procedures for shipboard fires.

Other records examined by the news organization documented how the city over the years not only neglected training, but also did not maintain critical equipment. On the night of the blaze, Newark’s main fireboat was out of service, unable to even start, according to union and city officials. And then no one sought the assistance of the Fire Department of New York and the FDNY’s powerful fleet of fireboats until hours had gone by, reports show.

Commanders on the scene, meanwhile, were initially so confident that they had the fire under control that they cancelled calls for mutual aid as unnecessary.

Training at the port

Baraka said the city has already assigned Newark fire professionals “to partner with experts at the port” to consider the placement of a marine fire training facility at Port Newark . The Fire Department of New York already has such a facility with a ship fire simulator, funded by a federal grant, on Randall’s Island.

Officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey , which operates the region’s ports, confirmed the discussions with the city.

“The tragic fire aboard the Grande Costa d’Avorio highlights the urgent need to review emergency protocols that have been in place over the past 20 years to determine whether they are in need of being updated or revised,” said a spokesman in a statement. “As part of that continued effort, the Port Authority is actively engaged in a robust dialogue with Newark Mayor Baraka and city officials about fire safety and how to best assist the Newark Fire Department in preparing for future emergencies at the port.”

Fire union officials, though, raised concerns over what they see as the slow pace of the city’s response to the Port Newark fire.

Tarantino recalled that after the last line-of-duty death of a Newark firefighter in 2001, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health , the federal agency that addresses the prevention of work-related injury and illness, took three years to implement its findings.

“Are we supposed to wait that long to start training on shipboard fires?” he asked.

The retired union official said if the mayor is not willing to implement training and or standards for the Newark Fire division, he should notify the Coast Guard and Port Newark not to call the Newark Fire Division for any type of fire-related issue at the port.

“They should only call the surrounding cities that are adequately trained and prepared,” he said.

Edward Kelly , a Boston firefighter and general president of the Washington -based International Association of Fire Fighters , the national union that represents Newark’s firefighters, said the reality is many of the issues that will be raised in the reports will not be surprising.

“We don’t need to wait for a Coast Guard report to tell us Newark firefighters weren’t trained for shipboard fires on July 5 . We don’t need to wait for a NIOSH investigation to know the city’s staffing levels are dangerous,” he said.

Kelly added that the city’s model of a Division of Fire reporting to a Department Public Safety hasn’t served Newark’s residents, firefighters, or its mayor.

“The director, a career police officer, wouldn’t be familiar with the operations of a major fire department,” he said. “To not have a fire chief serve as a cabinet-level position is unique to Newark , and quite frankly, it has failed the citizens, and it has failed Augie and Bear,” he added.

Still, he supported the mayor’s plan to create a joint task force of elected officials and union members to develop a legislative agenda supporting Newark’s fire fighters.

“It’s what we called for in July. Better staffing and training lead to a safer Newark for residents and a safer working environment for fire fighters,” Kelly said.

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