HUNTINGTON - Huntington Mayor Steve Williams has set a deadline for recommendations on how to proceed with an independent investigation into management and protocol involving the fire department's trucks and equipment.
Fire Chief Jan Rader and City Manager Cathy Burns will submit their recommendations for whom should conduct the investigation, or their recommendations on how to find that person, by the end of the business day Feb. 25, he said. Williams' deadline comes amid reported problems involving the Huntington Fire Department's ladder trucks and boat, raising concerns for the safety of firefighters and the public.
"We need somebody independent to come in - an independent investigator - that is highly respected, whose credentials are impeccable, who can be able to be able to tell me what happened, why it happened, how it happened and then what we need to do make sure it never happens again," he said Tuesday.
In early January, one of the department's ladder trucks broke down because of reported electrical issues. That truck is still out of service and is awaiting a maintenance crew to inspect it and give repair estimates, Williams said.
On Feb. 7, a second ladder truck broke down before a maintenance crew determined it was 14 quarts low on oil, causing the truck's turbo apparatus to lock up.
This left the city without ladder trucks, having to rely on mutual aid agreements with volunteer fire departments in Cabell and Wayne counties for backup.
The second ladder truck that experienced issues last week was successfully repaired by members of the city's Public Works Department and returned to service Tuesday, said Bryan Chambers, the city's communications director. Chambers was not immediately sure about the cost of repairs, but noted the city's service garage contains many replacement parts.
One of the fire department's water rescue boats has also been out of service since May 2018, when a pump failure caused it to take on water. Williams said the boat would likely have to be sent back to its manufacturer for repairs. He is not sure of a timeline.
Williams said he ordered an independent, external investigation into what caused these problems, which could be a "breakdown in command or in protocols."
The fire department is operating with the largest budget ever and is currently spending within that budget, he said. The department was allocated about $13.4 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year. The department had spent approximately 49 percent of that by the end of December, the halfway point of the fiscal year.
The department is budgeted $50,000 for repairs and has spent approximately $10,371 by December, Williams said.
"There's never been a request that has come through my office saying, 'We don't have enough money, what do we do?'" he said. "There's plenty of money there, more money budgeted for this department than ever in history."
Williams said he's hoping the investigation will reveal any shortcomings in protocols or management that allowed equipment to be neglected, such as the ladder truck getting low on oil.
"If there's something that is being done, that I can see is intentional that is causing this, then I'm going to have someone's head on a platter," he said.
Before firefighters begin their duties, Williams said they were required to inspect the fire trucks. A report on the trucks' fluid levels is completed every three days. Part of the independent investigation will look at these reports to identify any potential communication breakdowns, he said.
Rader has now appointed Deputy Fire Chief Ray Canafax to be responsible for the department's fleet management program.
During a city council meeting Monday, several members of the community expressed safety concerns about the condition of the trucks and equipment. Several said they believed firefighters were being told not to speak out about safety concerns, referring to it as a "gag order." Williams said there is no gag order and firefighters and employees are free to speak up about any concerns they may have.
Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.