Fox CT Investigation: Hartford firefighters open up about poor leadership, safety issues

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HARTFORD--Five Hartford firefighters are accusing the fire department of rampant mismanagement after a slew of incidents, including firefighter arrests and the death of a firefighter in the line of duty. All of them spoke under the condition of anonymity.

The department is "in a dangerous place, and if it continues in this direction there are definitely going to be more injuries and potentially firefighter deaths. It's inevitable,” one firefighter said.

Earlier this month, emails from within the department obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed safety concerns in the months and days leading up to the fire that killed firefighter Kevin Bell. Those concerns included empty back-up air tanks and a broken thermal imaging camera used to detect victims or fallen firefighters in smoke-filled conditions. It is still unknown if either of those issues were linked to Bell’s death.

On Tuesday, firefighters claimed they had other non-reported issues related to safety. One of the allegations was that the department does not provide firefighters with enough ropes, and another was that the department doesn't mandate the use of fire-resistant hoods to protect their necks and heads.

"The burns that the firefighters have received on their face and head could have been eliminated if it was a policy to always wear, or a directive to wear, Nomex hoods, but the union was against that,” the first firefighter said. “We have a harness in our turnout gear but the city doesn't supply us the rope to escape."

The firefighters blame issues on years of poor leadership and relaxed hiring practices going back through the tenures of several different chiefs. One example they gave was that the department stopped using the Candidate Physical Agility Test, or CPAT, a test recognized by the International Association of Fire Fighters to "ensure that all fire fighter candidates possess the physical ability to complete critical tasks effectively and safely."

"People that are politically connected are getting right through the hiring process, and now the after effect is that you're having to deal with all those problems,” a second firefighter said.

“I've been told directly that the chief doesn't want fire services. That’s our communication levels. That he doesn't want fire services that state that someone’s conduct or performance is not up to standard. He doesn't like that because it’s able to be subpoenaed or FOIed,” a third firefighter said. Fire services are the method of communication members of the department use.

In the last year, several firefighters were arrested related to alcohol abuse. One was arrested for accidentally shooting a friend in the face. Another was accused of barging into the apartment of a woman he did not know. A third was arrested on drunk driving charges for the third time after police say he crashed his car and left the scene of an accident. Two lieutenants were put on leave after getting into a brawl at the firehouse while on duty. And one of the department's deputy chiefs was put on leave for undisclosed reasons. In total, six firefighters are currently on administrative leave related to various incidents.

"Their drug and alcohol policy, they don't do anything. It's almost like they want to sweep everything under the rug. And I don't want to go into a fire with a drug addict or a drunk,” the second firefighter said.

According to all five fire fighters, their concerns came to a head when Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra implemented a task force to investigate the recent issues at the department. The task force includes retired city chiefs John Stewart, Nelson Carter, Charles Teale, Edward Casares, and current Police Chief James Rovella.

"I see no credibility in the task force and here's why: The deficiencies that exist in the Hartford Fire Department resulting in the public events and embarrassments recently, and the root causes that the mayor seeks to uncover, have existed for some time, at least through the administration of a couple of chiefs on the task force,” a fourth firefighter said.

Fox CT reached out to Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra and current Fire Chief Carlos Huertas for this story. The mayor’s office declined to comment. Huertas sent us the following statement:

As an American everyone is entitled to their own opinion, that makes our country, state, city and this department great.

Having different opinions is critical to democracy.

As chief I admire their passion and look forward to working with them as we continue to build a 21st-century fire department, second to none.

Related stories:

Task force probing troubled Hartford Fire Department holds illegal meeting

Hartford Fire Department deputy chief put on administrative leave

Hartford mayor: We want the fire department back on a positive course

Feuding climbs the chain of command within Hartford Fire Department

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