HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WCHS/WVAH) — Questioned by Huntington City Council member Alex Vence, Mayor Steve Williams announced he was directing his administration to launch an external investigation into maintenance practices and procedures at the Huntington Fire Department.
Williams spoke in front of a packed room, many of the onlookers were firefighters who felt they couldn’t speak in their own defense so a Charleston firefighter and field representative for the International Association of Firefighters Union came to the Monday meeting to speak on their behalf.
“I’ve had some members of the Charleston Fire Department concerned,” union representative Myron Bogess said.
Bogess said an apparent gag order was issued to a perturbed Huntington firefighter.
Huntington union members added a letter was sent to a mystery member of management, and they claimed Fire Chief Jan Rader threatened punitive action if he went public about maintenance criticisms at the department.
“I’m not even allowed to check in with my brothers working here in Huntington because evidently nobody is allowed to talk about it," Bogess said.
In a statement, City Communications Director Bryan Chambers declined comment on the letter or alleged gag order.
“Our city attorney had advised that is an internal matter and we are prohibited from making public comments about such matters,” Chambers said.
As of Monday night, Huntington’s two ladder trucks were both broken and not being used in the rotation, and the city’s fire rescue boat was down causing a handful of people to rally in front of City Hall and others to worry that towers and rivers would be unsafe.
“With no aerial trucks right now, how many lives would be lost if that happened again?” Susan Shrader asked of high-rise fires.
Steven Davis said the oath of any sworn official in this city “is to protect the citizens, and that’s not what’s going on here.”
Rader declined an interview and didn’t have a comment.
In another statement from the city, Chambers said one ladder truck has been down for months and was sent to an expert to repair the truck’s electrical issues.
The second truck, he said, went down on Thursday caused by a lack of oil in the truck’s machinery.
“Upon inspection of Tower 2,” the statement read, “Public Works Director Jim Insco reported that mechanics discovered that the apparatus was 14 quarts low on oil, which caused the turbo on the apparatus to lock up. Part of the daily protocol of the Fire Department calls for firefighters to check the fluid levels of each apparatus in their station.”
The city Public Works Department has been waiting on a part to repair the second ladder truck, and it was expected to be back in operation Tuesday.
After questioning the mayor, Council member Vence said he was happy with the step of beginning an investigation into the potential issues in equipment maintenance.
“There are people all over the city who are put at risk if we don’t have the proper equipment,” he said.
Vence, who lives in one of the city’s high-rises, said this current council has set the fire department’s budget higher than at any time in city history by adding more than a million dollars to the operating budget and nearly doubling the auto-repair budget to $50,000.
Chambers said the damaged rescue boat was being repaired and, though he didn’t say when it would be back in action, there is a police rescue boat that covers its operations for now.
He also said, thanks to mutual aid agreements, fire departments outside the city like Barboursville and Kenova have been able to respond with their ladder trucks until Huntington’s units are repaired.