San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward wants more information about the health risks confronted by thousands of San Diego Firefighters exposed to potentially dangerous amounts of cancer-causing asbestos at the city’s training facility near Lindbergh Field.
On Tuesday, Ward responded to an NBC 7 Investigates report about the fire department’s failure to act quickly and decisively when it learned more than 15 years ago that the training center buildings contained materials made with asbestos.
“We count on our firefighters to face danger every day to keep us safe,” Ward said in an email to NBC 7 Investigates. “As a community and as a City, we have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure we’re providing our first responders with safe facilities to conduct the training needed to protect our communities, and I’m very interested in more information from city staff on this troubling report.”
City Councilmember Chris Cate also reacted to the report and said revelations about asbestos exposure at the training center add a sense of urgency to plans for a new, state-of-the-art training center.
“I think from my standpoint, it's just further evidence that we need to start making this a priority for the city, and start looking for an additional location for a training facility for these firefighters," Cate said in an interview.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office did not respond to NBC 7 Investigates’ request for comment.
Cate also said the relocation of the training center is a budget priority for his office this year.
His concerns and those of Councilmember Ward were echoed by Jesse Conner, president of San Diego Firefighters’ Local 145, which represents more than 900 city firefighters.
“We need city leaders to acknowledge that there is a significant problem," Conner said.
Details on the asbestos threat to thousands of San Diego firefighters came from hundreds of documents NBC 7 Investigates received after filing a public record request with the city.
Among the records was a striking memo written by the Fire Department’s former Cancer Awareness and Prevention Program Supervisor last year, laying out evidence that the department was made aware of asbestos-containing materials in the Fire Academy facilities as early as 2002.
To read the memo, click here.
Expanding on information he shared Monday with NBC 7 Investigates, Firefighter Union President Conner explained how health and safety concerns at the outdated training center are restricting the amount and type of training for local firefighters.
While Conner applauds the department’s decision last summer to shutter the buildings that contain asbestos, and limit training in other buildings, he said restrictions on training are a problem for fire crews.
Conner said firefighters cannot spray water inside those building, get floor tiles wet, or drag equipment across those tiles. Doing so could disturb the asbestos in those tiles and the glue used to secure them.
Conner also voiced concerns about restrictions on outdoor training. He said water can now be sprayed only on grass, to prevent it from entering storm drains. Conner also said “live-fire” training is a challenge, because of nearby buildings and proximity to the airport.
“That facility was never meant to be a full-time training facility," Conner said.
Yet, the city purchased the facility and started police and fire training almost immediately more than 20 years ago.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the San Diego Fire Department confirmed no asbestos mediation was performed in the former Naval Training Center facilities prior to training taking place.
The firefighters’ union wants the city to sell the land underneath the current training center and use the proceeds to help fund construction of a new facility.
“If city leaders do not want to consider this option, which would be a no- or low-cost solution to the taxpayer, we would like them to develop a long-term plan to fund a training center another way,” Conner wrote in an email to NBC 7 Investigates.
San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell has declined two requests for an on-camera interview on these issues, though the department did provide written responses to questions submitted by NBC 7 Investigates.
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