AUSTIN (KXAN) – Firefighters raced to the scene of a north Austin city-owned warehouse fire on the afternoon of May 6, arriving within five minutes of the first call.
But it wasn’t until a third alarm unit arrived a little over an hour later that crews were told the smoke swirling around the warehouse could be laced with asbestos, according to internal city documents obtained by KXAN that reveal new details of the incident that potentially exposed 115 firefighters and civilians to the cancer-causing building material.
After battling the fire at the corner of Blackson Avenue and the North Interstate 35 service road, those 115 city employees were sent to get chest X-rays as a precautionary measure in case they later develop health problems, according to an AFD spokesperson. In May, the city’s payroll had just over 600 firefighters.
The city had been aware of the asbestos in the warehouse since at least 2013. That year the Building Services Department had a survey done that found asbestos in many parts on the property’s three buildings, including in the drywall, flooring, floor adhesive and ceilings of the main warehouse that caught fire.
Bryan Frieders, president of the Firefighters Cancer Support Network and a retired fire chief of the Pasadena Fire Department in California, said firefighters are in danger and can be exposed to up to 200 cancer causing chemicals when they go into a burning building. The Support Network provides assistance to firefighters with cancer and their families.
Respiratory gear can protect a firefighter’s lungs, but other chemicals can penetrate clothing and skin, Frieders said.
“Yet we still see firefighters on a daily basis going into these known-dangerous situations to try to save lives,” he said.
The cause of the warehouse fire remains unclear. A film production company using the warehouse for storage had recently vacated, and workers with Building Services were inspecting the building until about noon — just three hours before the fire broke out — according to an incident report.
Fire crews weren’t told of the asbestos until the arrival of a third alarm unit, according to AFD’s incident report.
“This information was also announced over the fireground although it was learned well into the incident. Although best precautions were taken to avoid exposure after notification, the fire was very significant and the smoke produced from the fire swirled throughout the fireground with multiple shifts in the wind while units were on scene. All firefighters and civilians on the fireground could have a possible exposure to asbestos,” according to one narrative in the incident report.
It is also possible the safety support crew that cleaned the firefighting equipment was also exposed to asbestos, according to AFD.
Four members of Engine 16 were exposed to a cloud of black smoke during the incident and “reported continuous coughing the morning following the incident,” according to the incident report.
Since firefighters are in such danger, particularly danger of developing cancer from exposure to chemicals, “the city should take care of them and their families,” Frieder said.
Following the fire, the city’s Code Department investigated the property on May 8 in response to a complaint.
Photos of the inside of the structure taken that day by a Code investigator show a charred and mangled interior with heaps of rubble and twisted and sagging overhead beams. The Code employee noted “one building shows signs of homeless breaking in. There is a hole in the roof and a broken window,” according to a summary of the Code investigation.
AFD estimated damage to the structure at $100,000 and about $10,000 in additional damage to unwanted items, including material left by Troublemaker Studios, the film production company that had recently vacated.
The only other Code Department complaint at the warehouse lot came in 2012, prior to city ownership, and was related to the building being dilapidated and in danger of becoming a “harbor for vagrants, criminals or immoral persons,” according to the notice of violation.
After its May 8 visit, the Code Department recommended demolishing the building, which it appears the city was already planning to do.
City officials contracted Baer Engineering and Environmental Consulting Inc. to conduct an asbestos investigation in March of 2021. The city asked for the investigation “to prepare for demolition of all three buildings” on the property.
It is not clear what would be done with the lot after demolition, but city officials have spent years considering the best use of the sizable property that sits next door to another expansive former Home Depot site the city also owns.
The city bought the Home Depot property in 2008 and the now-torched warehouse lot in 2013; both sit within District 4 represented by Council Member Greg Casar.
Casar previously told KXAN redeveloping the properties has been a “grueling process” and the area “has been neglected by the city for too long.”
KXAN investigators asked AFD if their crews receive any kind of notification of the presence of asbestos or other hazardous materials before they respond to an incident.
A spokesperson said in part, “Since asbestos is a substance that’s not an issue unless disturbed in some way, there’s no way for them to know before they arrive if it’s in a building’s tile glue, ceiling tiles, etc.”
The spokesperson added that they do track permits for storing particularly hazardous materials in buildings, so they can notify responding crews, if need be.
In 2018, the city overhauled its asbestos policy after KXAN reported multiple asbestos disturbances that have potentially affected up to 200 city employees. However, many of the recommended changes focused on tracking and removing asbestos during renovation or construction projects.
“Would it have been good to know? Absolutely. Could it have changed the exposure rates, the amount of time the firefighters were inside of the building? Absolutely. But there is no perfect system,” Frieder said. “Yet we still see firefighters on a daily basis going into these known-dangerous situations to try to save lives.”
Frieder and his network are more concerned with protecting first responders after they’re exposed – and even after they are retired.
He said his job was, “making sure their families are protected by presumptive laws should they be diagnosed with cancer; making sure they are getting adequate treatment.”
The Firefighters Cancer Support Network and other advocacy organizations are working to get “presumptive laws” in the books in more states and to get states to extend those protective measures for firefighters into retirement.
“A lot of retirees two, three, four or five years after they retire are being diagnosed. That’s a significant problem for us,” he said. “They took an oath to serve the city they are serving. There is an expectation that the city they are serving is going to take care of them — and their families.”
For more information on the Firefighter Cancer Support Network click here.
You can find more information on mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos, here at mesothelioma.com.