By Wanda Moore, WPTC 5
RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — Several Riviera Beach firefighters reported flu-like symptoms. When they went to their doctors earlier this year they learned it wasn’t the flu. The wheezing, coughing and in some cases fever were a result of mold exposure.
“We have upwards of 8 or 9 people that are testing for higher levels of mold,” Scott Bielecky, President is the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of Palm Beach County.
Contact 5 obtained the results of blood tests from eight different firefighters, who wanted to stay anonymous. All of them show higher levels of the same types of mold.
“You can definitely develop symptoms, severe symptoms, with this high level of exposure,” said Dr. Jose De Olazabal at the Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center.
Three of the firefighters had very high levels in their blood. “If they’re having symptoms, respiratory symptoms like coughing, congestion, wheezing, armed with this data (from their blood tests), then it’s concerning,” Dr. De Olazabal said. One of the firefighters had to be hospitalized and has been out of work for a month. The city just recently agreed to pay him worker’s compensation.
The biggest concern has been station 88. The city brought in specialists who determined the structure was unsafe. “The decision was made to locate the staff nearby during the day and then, at night, we separate the staff and put them out of two other stations,” Riviera Beach spokesperson Rose Anne Brown said. Bielecky said that creates another issue since it’s going to impact response time in the area.
Not all of the affected firefighters were working out of station 88. “We’re taking this very seriously,” Brown said. Station 88 is under reconstruction and the city is having all stations tested for mold.
Firefighters are wondering if enough had been done over the last few years to keep them safe. “We’ve known that there’s been issues with the maintenance of the stations for some time,” Bielecky said.
Mold had been found on several city buildings over the last few years, including city hall, which has undergone reconstruction.
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FL Firefighters Battle Sickening Mold in Stations
by Tony Doris, The Palm Beach Post, FLA
RIVIERA BEACH — Robert Aylsworth started feeling it three years ago. Fatigue. Shortness of breath and chronic sinus problems, two bouts of pneumonia.
The longtime Riviera Beach firefighter got to the point where, at the scene of a fire, to put on his breathing mask, he had to calm himself so he wouldn’t panic and rip it off for fear he wouldn’t get enough air.
His problem wasn’t smoke inhaled at fire scenes. It was mold inhaled at fire stations, he said.
What doctors thought might be allergies, asthma, sleep apnea, even thyroid cancer, blood tests ultimately showed to be high levels of mold, with symptoms so bad he was hospitalized for a week in February.
Aylsworth, a captain and formerly No. 2 man in the department, wasn’t alone. More than a dozen Riviera Beach firefighters have taken themselves for blood tests in recent weeks. Many received scary results.
One showed a level of 104 micrograms per milliliter of a type of spotty, black mold called Cladosporium herbarum, known to exacerbate asthma, hay fever and other ailments. The normal limit would be 14.7. Another firefighter registered 137. Several others measured well over the norm, as well, for that and other types of mold.
“We have enough to worry about what we’re breathing when we leave the fire station, going out to serve the public,” said Capt. Frank Schiola, a 25-year department veteran. “We shouldn’t have to worry about what we’re breathing inside the fire station.”
Firefighters say all four of the city’s stations are infested with mold. A federal health agency is investigating.
And the problem goes beyond that. City Hall, the police station and library are infested, too. The situation was so bad at City Hall that a month ago the city manager and city attorney and their staffs moved out to the city’s public safety building, leaving lower-ranking employees behind.
City Council meetings had just returned to City Hall in 2018, after shifting to the city marina for the better part of a year while repairs were made and mold remediated in the council auditorium.
“And they were only in there one night a week for a couple of hours,” Aylsworth noted. “We’re living in this stuff 24-7 and they want to keep putting their head in the sand.”
‘It Was Addressed’
Deputy Chief John Curd, who took over as interim chief when Fire Chief Reginald Duren was named last month to head Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, said the city has been addressing the problem and is awaiting results of air quality tests taken in the fire stations. Through a spokesman, Duren said it would be inappropriate for him to comment since he no longer works for the city.
“No, they’re not the newest buildings but anytime there has ever been an issue those issues have been addressed,” Curd said. “To peoples’ liking and satisfaction? Not always. But anytime there has ever been a roof leak or issue it was addressed.”
The city undertook an environmental assessment some time ago, Curd added. “They said one of the biggest issues we had was housekeeping.” Vents needed cleaning, for example, and windows needed to be closed when the air conditioning was on, to prevent condensation, he said.
Station 86, on Singer Island, has been “completely renovated” and Station 88, on Blue Heron, is scheduled to be torn down within the year. It got a new roof in the meantime, he said.
But Aylsworth, Schiola and others say that for years, the city’s approach has been to take its time with repairs, then do patchwork and ignore underlying problems. When a leak is reported, it takes three to four weeks for the city to go through its bidding procedures and get someone to fix it. By then, rainwater has leaked into the walls for weeks and is left there to foster mold.
When someone complains, the attitude is, “‘It’ll dry out,'” said Aylsworth, who’s been with the department 27 years. “It’s been that way my whole career. That’s the way the city addresses the problems. They keep putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”
Aylsworth called the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where a spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirmed that a preliminary investigation has begun.
City Manager Karen Hoskins, serving on an interim basis until her retirement next month, sent a memo to all employees March 22, headed, “Water intrusion and air quality concerns.” The half-page memo did not use the word “mold” but said the city “recently received a call concerning water intrusion and possible quality issues” and hired two firms to conduct visual and air quality testing. “The city is committed to providing a safe work environment for all employees,” Hoskins wrote.
Speaking on behalf of Hoskins, city spokeswoman Rose Anne Brown said Friday afternoon that the air test results should arrive within the next few days and will be publicly available.
The recent call Hoskins’ memo cited notwithstanding, firefighters say mold has been a problem for years and that the city makes it worse by delaying repairs and underachieving. As far as air quality test results, Schiola said, the city conducted tests in the past five years but refused to make the results available.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything is good.’ Whenever the government says don’t worry about it, that should be a red flag right there,” he said. “That information should be shared freely.”
When roof replacement and other work recently began on Station 88, the worst of the stations, it bared insulation blackened with mold. When carpet was pulled up in the bunk room, where firefighters sleep, it revealed a second, older carpet underneath that was one big, black sheet of mold, firefighters said.
A wall next to the toilet, buckled and peeling from water intrusion, was scraped, spackled and repainted rather than removed, one firefighter said. And while the carpet was removed, mold under the wall partitions was left untouched, he said.
In one station, firefighters installed drywall themselves rather than wait for contractors.
The prospect of a federal inspection has the city accelerating the work, firefighters said, but they were skeptical.
Mold problems, after all, don’t crop up overnight and in Riviera Beach they have been an open secret for years.
Former City Manager Jonathan Evans said this week that on the day he was fired, Sept. 20, 2017, he presented to the City Council a full report on the public works building that he had moved employees out of because of asbestos, black mold and water intrusion in electrical boxes. Even then, it took the city months to tear down the building.
“All of the facilities in Riviera Beach date back to the late ’70s and they have issues with water intrusion and lack of natural light. It’s hard to maintain a facility that is that old,” he said.
Evans, seen as a reformer, was fired without explanation, and took a job as city manager in Madeira Beach. After a legal battle, he won a $190,000 settlement and a reputation-clearing statement by the city that he was not fired but left by mutual consent. As of last week, all three council members who engineered his firing have been voted out of office and members of the reconstituted board are talking about inviting him back.
During his six months in Riviera, Evans said he toured all the fire stations and told firefighters that repairs were one of his priorities. “For first-responders, that’s their place of residence and in the case of a hurricane or other incident, they are required to be there. So that was definitely a priority,” Evans said. “The stations are at the end of their useful lives.”
The city has millions of dollars worth of urgent construction needs and he was starting to address them in the 2018 budget, along with issuing bonds and engaging in public-private partnerships to accomplish the task, he said. Instead the city spent millions on a new community center and park renovations but didn’t replace the public safety facilities, he said.
“With the dangers and occupational hazards we face on a daily basis, it’s kind of unconscionable,” Scott Bielecky, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2928. “It’s a very big concern and it’s happened over a period of time. All we can do is make sure they’re addressing the issue in as prompt and rapid a manner as they can.”
Meanwhile, some firefighters are calling in sick more than usual, 15 to 20 of the city’s 75 firefighters have paid for blood tests and while not all have tested over acceptable limits, several results shared with The Palm Beach Post exceeded acceptable limits. Several have applied for worker’s compensation.
Aylsworth is among them, but said that the city is slow-walking his claim, forcing him to draw from vacation and sick time to get a pay check. Though his breathing still sounds strained, his doctor said he’s healthy enough to return but that he can’t work in that same environment because a relapse could be worse. He got word Thursday that the city would let him come back and work Monday in the public safety building, where the city manager’s office has been moved.
Aylsworth, 47, and Schiola, 55, have been in the department long enough that they’re registered for DROP, or Deferred Retirement Option Plan, so they’re in a better position to speak without fearing retribution. Their accounts of the mold were backed by several other firefighters who asked not to be identified.
The city long has been reactive rather than proactive, Schiola said, scrambling to make fixes, rather than spending to remediate the mold. “This kind of mindset,” he said, “is going to cost a lot more in the long run.”
(c)2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)