Fire dept. cited for 'serious' safety violations after LODD

The city could face fines of $1,000 per violation if it does not propose a plan to fix the violations cited by OSHA investigators

The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — The Hartford Fire Department has been cited for five "serious" violations by state Department of Labor officials investigating the fire that claimed the life of firefighter Kevin Bell.

The violations, issued by Conn-OSHA and obtained by The Courant through a Freedom of Information Act request, are equipment-related to individual firefighters from engine Company 16, which Bell belonged to, and that participated in trying to put out the Oct. 7 fire at a home on Blue Hills Avenue. Bell died and a second firefighter was seriously injured.

Firefighter Kevin Bell
Firefighter Kevin Bell (Courtesy photo)

The OSHA violations include:

  • The department failed to ensure that all firefighters had been fit tested for their respective self-contained breathing apparatus within the past year. "Fit testing" ensures that an individual firefighter's breathing apparatus is properly fitted to prevent poison gases from being inhaled. The test also ensures that the apparatus does not come dislodged and that the mask is clear.
  • The department did not issue, and require the use of, protective fire/heat resistant hoods by firefighters responding to the blaze.
  • All firefighters had not received required medical evaluations prior to annual fitness testing.
  • The department failed to ensure that all self-contained breathing apparatus air cylinders were tested every five years as required by federal law.
  • The department failed to ensure that firefighters wore helmets or wore equipment properly. OSHA investigators said several firefighters were not properly wearing ear flaps and chin straps at the fire scene.

City officials have been ordered to attend a conference with Conn-OSHA inspectors on April 23 to discuss the violations and present evidence to refute some of the charges. The city could face fines of $1,000 per violation, the largest allowed, if it does not propose a plan to fix the violations cited by OSHA investigators.

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra expressed concern over the report's findings Thursday.

"This report is disturbing and raises serious questions about management and allocation of resources within the fire department, issues that the Hartford Fire Department Task Force and others are looking into," Segarra said in a statement. "For our fire department to continue to be effective to the community it serves, the safety of our men and women on the ground must be our number one priority at all times."

Hartford Fire Department spokeswoman Capt. Helene Lynch said in a release Thursday that the department planned to meet with Conn-OSHA officials April 23 "to discuss matters in dispute" related to the report's findings. Fire Chief Carlos Huertas did not respond to a request for comment.

In a hastily called press conference Thursday afternoon, Lynch said that the department expected Conn-OSHA's citations to be modified and department practices to be improved as a result of the scheduled meeting, but maintained that some of the findings remain in dispute and will be refuted.

"There are some things in [the OSHA report] that we can substantiate were done. We take exception to the report saying we are an unsafe department," Lynch said.

The violations do not name individual firefighters, but Kenneth Tucker, Conn-OSHA's director for the state Department of Labor, said Thursday that they do not pertain directly to Bell's equipment, which was seized at the hospital and sent to federal investigators.

Tucker said investigators determined that some firefighters had received fit tests and medical evaluations, while others did not. Investigators did not ask why the tests weren't done.

"Our job is to determine what was violated," Tucker said.

Tucker said that the meeting with department officials will revolve around discussing options available, including a settlement, adjusting monetary penalties and corrective action time frames and contesting the citations.

Bell, 48, was killed in a house fire at 598 Blue Hills Ave., becoming the first city firefighter to die in the line of duty in 40 years. Another firefighter, Jason Martinez, was badly burned and forced to jump from a second-story window.

A six-year veteran of the department assigned to Engine 16 at 636 Blue Hills Ave., Bell was in the burning house for less than 12 minutes before another member of the department called a mayday, according to radio transmissions,

He was discovered missing after all the firefighters were ordered out of the building for a head count and was unaccounted for in the house for more than eight minutes, records show.

When it was discovered that Bell was missing, a team from Tactical Unit 1 was sent into the burning house and found him in less than 30 seconds. Bell was found in a room on the second floor to the right of the staircase.

Bell had been in the house for less than 21 minutes, according to records. An air tank is rated for 30 minutes of air, but there are a various factors that go into how long a firefighter's air bottle lasts, including level of exertion or how much air is taken in with each breath.

Bell was responsible for carrying a hose to the second floor and putting water on the fire.

After his death, the state fire marshal's office, Conn-OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health began investigations, and the breathing apparatus that Bell was wearing was sent to its manufacturer for testing.

Two days before Bell's death, an internal fire department email revealed that an inspection of his engine company's equipment found numerous safety issues, including empty air tanks.

NIOSH's 20-page report raises questions about the conditions of the 10-year-old breathing equipment that the men wore that night. Among the conclusions were that Bell's breathing apparatus failed the "remaining service life indicator" test. Bell's cylinder had two alarm systems on it, and although the first one worked, the second alarm, which would have gone off when he had about 20 percent to 25 percent of his air left, did not pass the federal tests. Hartford fire officials said the alarm did sound, however. Hartford Fire Marshal Roger Martin would not say why Bell did not make it out of the house, saying that his death is still under investigation.

Bell's 4-year-old Scott Air Pak was in fair condition overall, the report noted, although there were numerous scratches and gouge repairs on the cylinder, and parts of it were dirty. The air cylinder worn by Martinez had not been tested in the past five years, as required by federal law. Bell's air cylinder had been pressure-tested in April 2013.

The report concluded the second breathing apparatus did not meet NIOSH's pressure tests because it "did not maintain positive pressure" throughout the 30-minute testing period.

NIOSH said that the probe of the breathing equipment has concluded and that "in light of the information obtained during this investigation, NIOSH has proposed no further action at this time." NIOSH is still investigating the circumstances of the fatal fire and how the department responded.

The fire department also formed a board of inquiry to investigate Bell's death, but that body has gone three months without a meeting, according to sources in the department.

After the fire, the mayor also formed a task force of four retired city fire chiefs and the current police chief to review the department's response and the board of inquiry's efforts. The panel has expressed frustration regarding access to information about the fire and the board of inquiry's actions to date.

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