COOLIDGE — The Coolidge Fire Department said that a firefighter was injured when he was hit in the ribs with a falling box during a chemical fire that took place at Bright International on Oct. 4.
But according to Lisa McCullough, the firefighter’s mother, that’s not the full story.
“One of the pair of turnouts that was lost was on my son’s body,” McCullough said during Monday night’s City Council meeting. “The clothes he was wearing under the turnouts are completely ruined. (The chemicals) soaked through the turnouts and all over EMS clothing as well as his skin. And the toxicologist (at the hospital) had him observed for six hours because of that problem.”
In an interview with PinalCentral, McCullough said that when the chemical fire broke out at Bright, her son entered the facility alone to evacuate Bright staff still inside the building. She estimates that he was inside the facility alone for about 10 minutes before a volunteer firefighter arrived on scene.
Her son reported zero visibility inside the building and came back out, before he and the volunteer firefighter were sent back in with the mission of locating the decomposing chemicals and removing them from the facility.
“As they were entering, some chemicals exploded,” McCullough said. She indicated that the volunteer firefighter was struck in the knee and that her son was knocked back several feet. In the aftermath of the explosion, the two firefighters became separated, and McCullough said her son was forced to crawl toward the sound of the other firefighter’s voice.
The pair managed to exit the building, at which point they discovered that her son’s turnouts were completely contaminated, McCullough said.
The Detail Call For Service report obtained by PinalCentral details that two chemicals were identified as being among those at the scene of the fire — ammonium persulfate and sodium persulfate. Both are used as oxidizing agents in cosmetic products.
Although not combustible on its own, ammonium persulfate has been known to “enhance the combustion” of other substances, according to a fact sheet released by the New Jersey Department of Health in 2016.
Wednesday Bright International released a statement on the incident:
"All Bright International employees had evacuated the warehouse building by the time first responders arrived. The only employees on site at the time first responders arrived were members of our response team, who were waiting outside the building."
At around 6:40 p.m. that Friday, as the fire raged on, the Coolidge Police Department sent out an email providing an update on the incident. Among other things, the email indicated that one Coolidge firefighter had been sent to a hospital after he was reportedly “hit in the ribs area by a falling box” and that the PD had been informed that the injury was “nothing serious.”
All firefighting personnel officially cleared the scene the following day at 5:43 p.m.
On Oct. 8, PinalCentral received an anonymous tip saying that a Coolidge firefighter was injured in the fire and that he had to be hosed down for possible exposure to toxic chemicals before he was taken to the hospital.
PinalCentral reached out to Coolidge Fire Chief Mark Dillon in an effort to confirm the information. In an email, Dillon stated that the firefighter had been transported to the hospital with rib injuries, and that the procedure of hosing down the firefighter was “common emergency operations practice” to ensure “the first responder is not taking contaminated chemicals to the hospital.” According to Dillion, every firefighter was decontaminated, or hosed down, before leaving the scene.
No mention was made that the firefighter’s turnouts had been damaged through exposure to toxic chemicals or that an explosion had occurred.
"A firefighter was unfortunately struck by the lid of a container that came off due to increased internal pressure," Bright International said. "We are thankful that he recovered swiftly and that no further injuries were reported."
During the council meeting, city officials also revealed that nearly $50,000 in CFD equipment was damaged as a result of the fire.
The topic was brought up by Mayor Jon Thompson during a presentation Dillon gave to the council regarding the potential purchase of another fire truck to replace a vehicle that was sold by the department earlier this year.
“I’m concerned about equipment needs and I’m concerned about firefighter safety,” Thompson said. “I’d like to know if this (the fire truck) is the most pressing need we have or if there are others that for our (firefighters’) safety that are maybe more pressing?”
According to Dillon, CFD suffered a significant equipment loss as a result of the fire at Bright International. The total loss is estimated at $49,755.89. The replacement of that equipment, Dillon said, would get CFD back up to the “before-incident standard.”
City Manager Rick Miller told the council that the city plans to submit the loss to its insurance provider, Southwest Risk.
Miller stated that the damages resulted from contaminated water emerging from the building. The water, he said, had a high Ph value and proceeded to corrode some of the equipment.
But Bright International said that wasn't the case.
"The water and materials present both inside and outside of the warehouse during this incident were tested and had a pH level of 3.0 -- comparable to orange juice," the company said in its statement. "Scientific experts call this a non-acidic level and indicate that metal, rubber or fire hoses would not be damaged by incidental exposure of this kind."
McCullough’s concerns stem beyond the damages done during the fire. She cites a culmination of problems, from a lack of manpower at CFD to aging gear.
In the reported explosion that took place at Bright, McCullough indicated that her son was knocked to the ground.
“When he was knocked down all those chemicals were on the ground, (and) the sprinkler system made a bunch of water so there was a lot of acid,” she said.
According to McCullough, the turnouts used by CFD are designed to fight structural fires and are not made to protect firefighters from chemical exposure. She also indicated that the turnouts used by her son had been previously damaged in another incident that took place at Bright International several months prior and had never been replaced.
Another concern raised at Monday night’s meeting was brought to council by Ty McCullough, Lisa’s husband and a former firefighter.
“The turnouts I think are the same ones from when I got on that are still being used,” he said. If any turnouts are damaged, he noted, firefighters must piece together their gear from whatever spares the department has.
“You may get boots two sizes too big for you, pants that don’t fit you. You don’t know. They’re not your turnouts,” he said. “Turnouts are made to fit you.”
In addition, both expressed concern about the lack of volunteer firefighters that responded to the call for service at Bright.
“If we have volunteers who are not showing up, and are not participating in drills, then I think there needs to be some repercussions for that,” Lisa McCullough told the council. She also requested that council consider moving toward a full-time fire department or adding several positions to the current full-time staff.
“It’s going to cost you a lot more in lawsuits if one of these guys dies during a fire because they didn’t have adequate equipment (and) they didn’t have adequate backup,” she said.
The concern was one Councilman Jimmy Walker shared.
“It scares me to death to think that (we had) one firefighter going into the fire — any fire. That should have never happened. That’s like sending a police officer into a bank robbery by themselves,” he said. “We’re going to get bit, and we’re going to get bit hard. And this one almost did it. Sooner or later, we’re going to have a tragedy. I think we need to sit down and seriously figure something out.”
But where the city will get the money to expand to a full-time fire department or add equipment is currently unclear. Miller noted that the city may have the option to apply for grants, but no definite plan has been outlined as of yet.
City Council members expressed interest in discussing the topic in more depth at a future study session.
“Sixty to six-five percent of most city budgets are devoted to law enforcement and fire,” Miller said. “So if you want to increase the funding to support those, it’s going to have to come out of the other departments somehow.”