The head of the firefighters’ union took his complaints against Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves and his top lieutenants over their handling of the July 14 Marco Polo condominium fire to the city Fire Commission on Wednesday.
Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, said Assistant Chief Ronald Rico, who heads fire emergency response operations, should have been on the scene but chose not to go, instead leaving command of the incident to a battalion chief. Rico also pulled back a mobile command center that would have helped firefighters as they fought the blaze.
Lee said Neves or Deputy Fire Chief Lionel Camara Jr. could have ordered Rico to be on scene but chose not to do so. He also criticized the actions of HFD’s two top leaders during the incident, stating that Neves “decided to be the PIO,” the public information officer, while Camara went into the tower with rank-and-file firefighters “to kick in doors and look for people that maybe needed to be evacuated.”
More than 40 percent of HFD’s firefighters battled the fire, a situation that called for more decisive leadership from Neves, Rico and others, Lee said.
“When you look at the senior leadership, their job is to lead, we expect them to lead,” Lee said. “And for whatever reason, at this fire, they chose not to. Some chose to show up. And those that did show up chose not to lead.”
While several commissioners asked questions of Lee, Neves and his top lieutenants listened silently.
During a break after Lee’s presentation, Neves declined offers by news reporters to respond to Lee’s complaints, explaining that he and others will comment when a report on the Marco Polo fire is released publicly. The fire was the largest high-rise blaze in Honolulu history.
While the investigation is substantially completed and a cause of fire determined, investigators are still gathering the many documents that must accompany the final report, Neves said.
“We’re dying to tell our side as well,” he said.
He declined to give an estimate for when the report would be released.
The chief gave essentially the same response when queried by a Honolulu City Council committee last month.
While he would not address Lee’s complaints directly, Neves said typically that it’s up to the assistant chief of operations to decide to be present at a scene. It’s also up to the operations assistant’s discretion, based on different scenarios, if the mobile command center should be dispatched.
But Lee said it’s clear to him that whenever there is a three-alarm-or-more fire, the assistant chief of operations is supposed to be dispatched. Choosing not to do so is subject to disciplinary action, he said.
The same goes for dispatching the mobile command center.
“It’s a pretty black-and-white call,” Lee told reporters afterward. “Our members get punished on a regular basis for violating policy and procedure. And it is pretty clear policy and procedure that that vehicle gets dispatched. It makes absolutely no sense not to be dispatched for the largest high-rise fire the state has ever seen.”
According to an incident report timeline provided by the union, the fire was given a three-alarm designation at 2:23 p.m., six minutes after it was first reported. The three-alarm designation triggered a dispatch of both Rico and the mobile command center.
But at 2:30 p.m., 13 minutes after the initial call, Rico canceled the dispatches for himself and the mobile command center.
Eventually, the Marco Polo fire was given a seven-alarm designation.
The mobile command center is an important tool for the command team, providing a quiet “controlled environment” for them to plan strategy, Lee said. It also comes with additional batteries needed to operate equipment critical to firefighting operations, he said. Instead, batteries had to be charged and brought in from nearby fire stations, he said.
Lee also criticized department leadership for not immediately cleaning and removing asbestos from protective firefighting gear used at the Marco Polo fire, exposing firefighters to potential health hazards.
Fire Commissioner Arnold Wong told Lee that the panel should come back and look further into his concerns after HFD completes and makes public its final report on Marco Polo.
“It is disturbing to me if this is all true,” Wong said. “But (we) have to hear the other side of it, and we can’t yet go up to that point yet.”
At that point, “maybe we can have another hearing and bring both sides to maybe talk” about what can be done to make future incidents less dangerous for firefighters, Wong said.
Lee said he agreed. “Our whole concern is firefighter safety, not only for firefighters that are at the scene, but everybody else.”
Three people died during the fire and a fourth person died after being hospitalized following the blaze.
Scores of the 568 residential units at the 36-story complex remain uninhabitable.
A fire safety advisory committee has reconvened and is coming up with recommendations expected to be issued in the coming weeks.
Neves told the Fire Commission that at that point, a determination will be made whether the City Council should proceed with Bill 69, which makes it mandatory for all older residential high-rises to be retrofitted with automatic sprinkler systems.
The city required new high-rises to be equipped with sprinklers starting in 1975.
Marco Polo is one of 358 pre-1975 residential high-rises 75 feet or taller that were built without sprinklers.
HFFA has been at odds with Neves for several years. In 2014, the union issued a “vote of no confidence” against the chief.