It’s been four months since the public learned the Huntington Fire Department has had major problems with maintaining and repairing its equipment. Mayor Steve Williams promised an investigation. Now one is about to begin, but as it does, new questions emerge.
Williams’ spokesman says the mayor has chosen an outside investigator, but he will not say who that is yet. The investigator must first receive clearance to disclose his or her participation in the investigation, spokesman Bryan Chambers told The Herald-Dispatch reporter Travis Crum.
It’s been a long story. The department had been placed on a 180-day probation period beginning in January after fire marshal inspectors found five deficiencies requiring correction, Crum reported. However, the fact that the department has been placed on probation never came up during City Council meetings in February or after while there were mayor and council discussions over reported equipment deficiencies in the fire department. You might think that the mayor would have informed the council publicly of the probation since the fire department’s operations were under scrutiny. However, that did not happen. Whether the council had been informed privately of the probation action against the department is unknown.
Fire marshal commissioners allowed Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader to correct those deficiencies and make a presentation during the Fire Commission’s April 25 meeting. Fire commissioners agreed to re-certify the department after finding Rader corrected the deficiencies within a 90-day time frame.
Among the deficiencies corrected in the fire marshal’s report was the need for a required aerial apparatus inspection and the need for required self-contained breathing apparatus testing. The report also noted fire engine 2, engine 5, engine 10 and fire tower 2 needed required motor vehicle inspections.
Rader’s correction of those deficiencies followed a March budget hearing before Huntington City Council in which she took responsibility for any problems associated with the fire department’s fleet and equipment.
“I take full responsibility as the chief for any issues we have had on the fleet, but I can reassure you we have taken steps already to fix those problems with the fleet,” Rader told council members.
The episode has been an embarrassment for the Tri-State’s largest city and its largest paid fire department. In early January, one of the department’s ladder trucks broke down because of electrical issues. On Feb. 7, a second ladder truck broke down, and a maintenance crew determined it was 14 quarts low on oil, causing its engine to lock up. This left the city without ladder trucks. Huntington had to rely on mutual aid agreements with volunteer fire departments in Cabell and Wayne counties.
The fire department’s water rescue boat, Marine Co. 1, has been out of service since May 2018 — more than a year ago — when a pump failure caused it to take on water. Equipment on the boat also was damaged during a vehicle transport.
Rader said since problems with the department’s vehicles and equipment surfaced, Assistant Fire Chief Ray Canafax was assigned to oversee the department’s fleet management program. Canafax will develop an apparatus replacement cycle to help with fleet management, she said.
The department is also partnering with the city’s Public Works Department to ensure the fleet is being routinely inspected and repaired.
Without knowing who the investigator is and what time frame he or she has to work with, it’s difficult for the public to know when it will learn what went wrong in the fire department and what it will take to make things right.
As this process begins, transparency and communication will be vital to restoring the public’s confidence in knowing that when bad things happen, the city’s emergency services will be prepared to respond adequately, if not better, and that the people answering the call will have the best protection available.