Baker City officials have determined that city firefighters connecting a hose to a dual-purpose port and inadvertently pushing a button sent fire-supression foam flowing from a fire truck into a fire hydrant, contaminating the city’s water system the morning of Oct. 27.
Robin Nudd, the city’s human resource director, said the investigation was completed this Tuesday, one week after the incident, after city officials met with the fire department staff and other volunteer firefighters who responded to the warehouse blaze.
Nudd said Battalion Chief David Blair was the incident commander during the warehouse fire at 2330 10th St. that was reported at 3:13 a.m. on Oct. 27.
After the hose was connected, someone pushed a button that sends foam through that port.
“The way the hoses were connected resulted in foam backflowing into the water system,” Nudd said. “There is a button on the apparatus that we believe a crew member pushed inadvertently when connecting the lines.”
That person has not yet been identified, she said.
Any discipline that would be administered in the confidential personnel matter would be either an oral reprimand or a letter placed in the employee’s file, Nudd said.
Blair told Nudd that he had not called for foam to be used on the fire, which destroyed the warehouse.
Fire Chief Sean Lee estimated that the foam was released between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m.
“It was the early morning hours,” Nudd said. “People make mistakes. Unfortunately, we had to learn this way that we definitely have to make changes.”
Nudd said four firefighters, the on-duty crew, were immediately available to respond when the initial call came in.
They were joined by volunteers from the Haines and Baker Rural Fire Protection District and other Baker City paid and volunteer firefighters.
Nudd said the city will be looking at installing a cover over the foam button to ensure that it isn’t accidentally activated in the future.
“Ongoing training will play a role in ensuring that this does not happen again,” she said.
She expressed confidence that all firefighters understood the importance of the issue.
“They don’t want it to ever happen again,” she said. “If we have to establish new protocols — it’s always good to have refreshers. We can always learn new things.”
Nudd will be meeting with Lee to recommend how to move forward from this point.
“It’s a big wake-up call,” she said. “They have a focus to save life and property, but there are other elements we need to consider when they’re going out on scenes like that.”
Michelle Owen, the city’s public works director, estimated that 12 to 15 gallons of the foam concentrate was released, although it’s not clear how much actually entered the water distribution system.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines the substance as a “nuisance chemical,” a category that the agency doesn’t consider health threats and doesn’t require cities to test for regularly.
According to the EPA, the methylene blue active substance in the foam can cause water to look cloudy and affect its odor and taste.
At levels above 0.50 milligrams per liter, foaming agents can cause those aesthetic problems and, according to EPA, “may cause a great number of people to stop using water from their public water system even though the water is actually safe to drink.”
City officials collected four water samples around 4 a.m. on Oct. 28, the day after the fire. A lab in Western Oregon didn’t detect any of the foam in two of the samples.
The sample collected at Eighth and A streets, the closest collection site to the fire, had a level of 0.064, almost 10 times less than the EPA threshold for possible aesthetic issues.
A sample collected at College and E streets had a level of 0.048, a bit more than 10 times less than the EPA level.