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Editorial: Answers, accountability required of fire department

February 17, 2019
Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch A Huntington Fire Department ladder truck sat outside the Huntington city garage on Saturday, Feb. 9, as it waiting for repairs. Mayor Steve Williams has ordered an investigation into why the fire department has had so many equipment failures that have gone unrepaired.
Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch A Huntington Fire Department ladder truck sat outside the Huntington city garage on Saturday, Feb. 9, as it waiting for repairs. Mayor Steve Williams has ordered an investigation into why the fire department has had so many equipment failures that have gone unrepaired.

Five years ago, the federal government gave the Huntington Fire Department $569,100 to buy a boat to deal with emergencies on the Ohio River and its tributaries. The boat is known as Marine 1, and its purpose is to assist in response to rescue operations and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive incidents on the 64 miles of Ohio River between the Greenup and Robert C. Byrd locks and dams, of which Huntington sits in the middle.

Marine 1 did its job for four years. Last May, it was taken out of service after a pump malfunctioned and the boat took on water. For some reason, it was never repaired. Few people knew of Marine 1′s problems until Feb. 2, when it was unable to respond to a report of a man about to jump from the East End (31st Street) bridge into the Ohio River.

Recent revelations, spurred by several people attending this past week’s Huntington City Council meeting, show that problems with the boat are not unique within the Huntington Fire Department. From ladder trucks to handheld pieces of equipment, the department has had serious problems with maintaining its equipment and keeping it functional.

In early January, one of the department’s ladder trucks broke down. That truck is still out of service and is awaiting a maintenance crew to inspect it and give repair estimates. 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 and having to rely on mutual aid agreements with volunteer fire departments in Cabell and Wayne counties for backup, which could cost precious minutes in response time. The ladder truck that was low on oil was successfully repaired by members of the city’s Public Works Department and returned to service Tuesday.

Mayor Steve Williams has ordered that an outside investigator be hired to examine the Fire Department’s protocols. He has also directed City Manager Cathy Burns and Fire Chief Jan Rader to submit recommendations on who should conduct the investigation or recommendations on how to find that person by the end of the business day Feb. 25.

In situations such as this, there are two questions that need to be answered: How did the fire department’s equipment get to be in such bad shape, and why hasn’t the public known about it until now?

There is reason to believe the Fire Department has more equipment problems than have been publicly revealed. Marine 1 also suffers from more than just engine damage. The electronic equipment on the roof was damaged while being hauled on a trailer.

In theory, the Huntington Fire Department itself should be able to say why it has had so much trouble maintaining its equipment and what steps will be necessary to repair or replace it. It should be able to provide an estimate of how much money is needed for the most urgent repairs and how much total is needed over a specific time frame. It should be able to pinpoint the failure in maintenance procedures that led to this situation.

Williams was right to call for an independent investigation. An internal investigation conducted by the Fire Department into its own practices could be a whitewash. The real culprits could be shielded from accountability. The outside investigator could also provide Williams with cover in case he needs to make some unpopular changes at the top of the department or down at the level of individual firefighters.

That brings this matter to Fire Chief Jan Rader. Where has she been the past few days while all this was coming to light? She has been conspicuously absent during these public discussions. Rader is the one who is supposed to know what’s going on in her department. Has she known of the equipment problems? If so, has she told Williams and pressed him for the money for repairs?

From the outside, it appears that Rader has spent much of her time dealing with the city’s drug problem instead of ensuring that the Fire Department has functional equipment. It’s good that she has become a national figure in the fight against opioid abuse, but it’s not good if she has neglected the department’s primary mission, which is preventing and fighting fires.

In the final analysis, the buck stops with Williams. As recent mayors go, Williams has done an excellent job. If he doesn’t act quickly and decisively to resolve this issue, it will detract from his record of achievements and the good he has done for the city.

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