City of Orlando and Orlando Fire Department officials will not face any fines after firefighters were exposed to asbestos during a training exercise in February.
Investigators met with Orange County Environmental Protection Division (EPD) officials and decided not to impose any penalties, which could have amounted to $25,000 for each violation.
Instead, fire department officials will initiate an asbestos training program they expect to implement by November.
“The EPD Air Quality Management Section has asked for this training as a Supplemental Environmental Project, in lieu of paying the assessed civil penalty,” EPD supervisor Renee Parker told Asbestos.com in an email statement.
WFTV-Channel 9 reported a total of 42 area companies paid asbestos exposure violation fines ranging from $650 to $90,000, the news agency reported.
Deputy Fire Chief Gerald Lane said the incident was a “learning experience” that “has improved the communication between the fire department and the EPD office and helped us understand our obligations.”
Officials Create Mandatory Asbestos Training Class
Officials with both departments met to clarify guidelines and requirements to develop a mandatory asbestos awareness class for all fire department staff. The training includes asbestos notification and removal requirements as well as regulations surrounding burn training.
“The master draft is finished and waiting for the EPD approval,” Lane said.
Parker added: “The asbestos training session the fire department will be conducting will help EPD with fulfilling our mission statement, ‘Serving our community by protecting the environment through education, participation and conservation.’”
Lane called the class a “win-win for everybody involved” and said the course will serve as a model and be shared with other Central Florida agencies.
Firefighters Removed Asbestos Floor Tiles Without Protection
Last winter, more than a dozen Orlando firefighters prepared an abandoned apartment building for a training exercise.
“We were scraping on our hands and knees,” said firefighter Anthony Donohoe, who explained they were removing old asbestos floor tiles from some of the rooms without wearing protective suits or respirators required by law.
Supervisors told the firefighters to remove the tiles despite a pre-demolition survey obtained by the fire department from a Tampa company that identified asbestos in the building.
One of the firefighters involved in the cleanup recognized the danger and called WFTV reporters.
In response to the firefighter’s claims, the city secured the site, submitted an asbestos survey of the property and filed a notice of Demolition or Asbestos Renovation reporting form to the EPD, Parker said.
City officials hired an abatement contractor to properly remove the asbestos-tainted materials, reports show.
Asbestos Fibers Cannot Be Disturbed
When cracked, scraped or broken, asbestos floor tiles release thousands of lethal microscopic fibers into the air. If inhaled, these fibers permanently lodge in lung tissue.
In some cases, cancerous tumors can develop around the fibers. Symptoms emerge 10-50 years after exposure.
Mesothelioma ranks as one of the deadliest cancers with an average fatality rate of one year after initial diagnosis.
Firefighters Face a High Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Because firefighters often enter older buildings containing damaged asbestos, they face a higher risk of exposure and developing mesothelioma.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted a study between 1987 and 2003 that showed a strong association between firefighting and asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma, kidney cancer, bladder cancer and leukemia.
While Lane looks forward to the department’s improved preparedness for asbestos incidents, he said it won’t clear the department’s culpability for those already exposed.
“Unfortunately, it does not provide a shield for the Orlando Fire Department for any potential litigation given the asbestos-related illnesses that some firefighter may have suffered,” he said.