Buildings regularly burned to train San Diego firefighters for more than a decade contained asbestos and lead in the floors, walls, and ceilings, and put thousands of firefighters at risk for serious injuries.
Now the city is being blamed for not protecting its first responders who trained at the San Diego Fire Academy at the former Naval Training Center (NTC) near the San Diego International Airport. The facility was converted to a training facility for firefighters more than 20 years ago.
The department was aware for at least two decades that the buildings firefighters crawled through and dragged heavy equipment through contained asbestos, yet they did nothing to protect trainees, the department’s former Cancer Awareness and Protection Program (CAPP) manager said in a memo obtained by NBC 7 Investigates.
Asbestos is a fire-resistant mineral that was widely used in building materials until the 1980s, when its use in the United States became restricted. (Asbestos has been banned in more than 60 countries worldwide.) It had been known for decades that asbestos exposure could cause serious illnesses including mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or chest. It can take up to 50 years for asbestos cancer to develop. Once diagnosed, the disease generally proves fatal within 12 to 24 months.
Left undisturbed, asbestos is not considered a health hazard. But when the material is damaged, the microscopic asbestos fibers can go airborne and be inhaled. This can easily happen when construction materials containing asbestos are ignited or cut into. Firefighters, in general, are at at a greater risk for cancers, including mesothelioma.
“When we heard that there was a potential long-term asbestos exposure, we were furious,” said San Diego Fire Captain Jesse Connor, who also serves as president of the local firefighters’ union. “One of the repeated mistakes over the years was that the fire department never fully addressed the problem. They continued to put interim solutions in place.”
Last August, Kurtis Bennett, the department’s former CAPP manager, wrote a memo explaining that asbestos-containing tiles, glue and other materials were damaged when trainees crawled through the training facilities during training. “Every SDFD firefighter for the previous two decades has spent literally hundreds of hours training in the buildings at NTC,” Bennett wrote. “Employee concerns about environmental safety at NTC were not addressed properly.”
Bennett claims that fire department officials knew asbestos was present in the buildings “since at least 2002.” And while abatement was done in one of the buildings, Bennett said in his memo that that was only “spot abatements.” Last summer, under pressure by Bennett and others, the fire department closed the buildings and posted warning signs.
Last fall, funding was authorized for asbestos abatement at the training facility. The union has also arranged for long-term medical tests and surveillance for firefighters who trained there.
Source: NBC 7 Investigates