VB firefighters’ exposure to asbestos during training raises alarms

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Virginia Beach’s fire chief is apologizing for a “misstep” that led to firefighters possibly being exposed to asbestos during a training exercise. 

“We will make sure we don’t have something like this happen again,” Fire Chief David Hutcheson told City Council members Tuesday afternoon. “I promise we will have that down pat.”

The apology was followed by a city audit that detailed how a demolition burn on April 15 led to some firefighters filling out asbestos exposure forms. 

Asbestos is a substance that was long used in buildings because of its resistance to heat. However its use has been banned after scientific research concluded it could cause cancer. 

The audit, given to council members and audibly summarized by city auditor Lyndon Remias at the meeting, detailed that the home located in the 2000 block of Princess Anne Road was offered up for firefighter training by a friend of a deputy chief.

Prior to the burn, concerns arose from some. At least one fire department leader said that the home may contain asbestos, according to Remais. While the plan to burn the home was briefly halted, it ended up occurring without any asbestos removal occurring. 

“Before you burn a structure, the EPA requires that asbestos must be removed,” Remais told councilors. 

It wasn’t until nearly a month after the burn, according to Remais, that an investigation was launched.

Samples at the charred house were taken by the city and lab work confirmed the presence of a minimal asbestos near the fireplace, according to a city health worker. 

Councilman John Moss spoke up to say he felt the city “got lucky” with this situation that there wasn’t a larger amount of the substance present. However, he appeared concerned that some department leaders directed the burn with knowledge of exposure concern.

“That’s not a direction out of ignorance,” Moss said. “That is a decision out of risk taking.”

Chief Hutcheson disagreed, saying there was miscommunication within the Fire Training Office on what kind of paperwork needed to be filled out prior to performing the burn at the rural property. 

“We had too many people handling the paperwork,” Hutcheson said. “One thought one had done it, one thought it wasn’t needed. It just was missed and it won’t happen again.”

Changes and additional checks have already been implemented Hutcheson told 10 On Your Side. However, he wouldn’t say if anyone was disciplined.

“I can’t talk about discipline issues, but we are continuing that part of the investigation,” Hutcheson said.

Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters want more people involved to figure out what happened. The following was posted on their Facebook page.

“The VB Firefighters reported what were believed to be violations of federal and state law to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Virginia Occupational Safety and Health (VOSH), and the City of Virginia Beach Auditor following an internal investigation using documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act requests. The VB Firefighters reported what were believed to be intentional abuse of public position, city equipment, resources and employees by a member of the executive leadership team when it appeared that Fire Chief Hutcheson was aware of the release of hazardous materials and had not reported the occurrence to the city, state, or federal authorities. This potential abuse and use of influence by a senior department official over junior training department officers has not gone without notice and permitted this hazardous material exposure to occur.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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