After 8 firefighters injured in blaze, Va. labor department investigating FD
Hampton Fire and Rescue may face citations if the inquiry determines it violated occupational safety and health regulations
By Gavin Stone
HAMPTON, Va. — A Hampton apartment fire that injured 12 people, including eight firefighters, has triggered a state investigation and ignited a debate within Hampton Fire and Rescue over staffing and overtime issues.
The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry is investigating whether Hampton Fire and Rescue violated state regulations in its response to a four-alarm apartment fire on Oct. 21.
The labor department opened the investigation following news reports that eight firefighters were injured in the blaze, according to spokesperson Jennifer Rose. The investigation will seek to determine whether the fire department violated any occupational safety and health regulations, Rose said. If so, the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Division could issue citations.
The investigation must be completed within six months, according to Rose, who added that no one employed by the fire department requested the state’s involvement.
Hampton Fire and Rescue is aware of the investigation and “will cooperate fully,” fire officials said in a statement.
The union that represents the city’s firefighters is also speaking out this week, saying too few firefighters were on duty that night and the staffing issues complicated the department’s response.
Paul Nichols II, president of Hampton Professional Firefighters Local 2450, condemned a “crackdown” by Hampton’s fire department leadership on overtime hours for staff since July 1. The reduction of overtime has meant the understaffed fire department often has fewer than the 65 firefighters required per shift under the department’s Standard Operating Procedure, he said.
At the time the fire was reported at the Township in Hampton Woods apartment complex, 64 firefighters were on duty across the city, the union and department confirmed. Nichols said Engine 10, the first to arrive on the scene at 1:30 a.m., was down one firefighter and only had three on board.
“...[T]here is no question that not having four firefighters assigned to Engine 10 slowed down fire suppression and rescue efforts, making operations extremely dangerous to citizens and firefighters,” Nichols said in a written statement provided to the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot.
The department, however, said in a written statement that the response that night was “well within the recommended standard of the National Fire Protection Association” for an apartment and fire of that size.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends at least 27 firefighters be present for a fire at a garden-style apartment building, according to the department. The Hampton fire department said a total of 67 fire personnel, including support staff, were deployed to the Oct. 21 fire.
Twenty-eight personnel were dispatched on the first alarm. When the second alarm was called, 26 more responded to the fire, followed by 13 support staff for a total of 67, the department said.
The department confirmed Engine 10 had three assigned personnel that day because they were operating a different vehicle than normal due to mechanical issues.
“Because the crew was operating in a different type of apparatus, a reduction to three personnel, from four, was adequate, identical to other engines in the City, and within policy,” the department said.
Eight firefighters were injured, three with “moderate” burns, according to Lt. Michael Zoladkiewicz, spokesperson for the fire department. A woman and a child were hospitalized with moderate to severe burns, and two others were treated and released for smoke inhalation.
In total, 24 apartment units were damaged in the blaze. It was brought under control after about two hours.
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The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but Zoladkiewicz said the fire division does not believe the fire was intentionally set. Due to the age of the building, the apartment complex was not required, nor did it have, a sprinkler system and integrated fire alarm system, Zoladkiewicz said.
As far as the labor department’s investigation of the incident, J.H. “Rip” Verkerke, a labor law expert with the University of Virginia, said investigators have the power to interview witnesses, review records and inspect workplaces as part of an investigation of this nature. Verkerke, who noted that he doesn’t have direct experience dealing with labor issues involving municipal fire departments, said the union’s concerns — which are independent from the investigation, but may overlap — don’t seem likely to be violations of a specific regulatory standard.
“Only a small number of standards would apply directly to first responders, and those standards don’t cover issues like staffing or equipment or the allocation of resources among neighborhoods,” Verkerke said. “So, I’m reasonably confident that the fire department won’t be cited for a violation of a specific safety or health standard.”
A more plausible citation would be for violating the general duty clause, Verkerke said.
“This statutory provision requires employers to keep workplaces free of recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious injury,” he explained. “If the department were previously on notice about a specific danger from understaffing trucks and perhaps even had adopted industry standard practices to guard against that danger, then violating that policy could conceivably be a basis for a citation when the violation causes serious injury.”
Since the Oct. 21 fire, Nichols said the union has been “begging” the fire department to increase staffing to no avail, sometimes having as few as 61 firefighters on duty per shift.
“Hampton’s budget cannot be balanced on the backs of firefighters and the citizens they proudly protect,” Nichols said. “We certainly cannot afford more burned firefighters and citizens or possibly worse.”
Battalion Chief Anthony Chittum, a spokesperson for the fire department, said in an email last week that the fire department has been able to operate effectively while the injured firefighters have been out.
One of the injured firefighters had returned to work as of Tuesday, Chittum said.
Fire department leadership said they have worked steadily to increase staffing levels over the last 25 years.
“The Division has worked its way from one to two personnel on a fire apparatus to a minimum of three, and in some cases, four,” the department said. “Although the ultimate goal is four personnel on every fire apparatus, current Hampton apparatus staffing and response guides meets or exceeds the NFPA recommendations for the number of personnel on a scene and within the recommended time.”
On the overtime issue raised by Nichols, the department said while it has always tried to limit overtime, it added additional measures this fiscal year “that did not impact the safety of its members or the public.”