AUSTIN (KXAN) – A third-party is coming in to investigate the Austin Fire Department’s cadet training academy next week, following the death of one cadet and the hospitalization of another this summer. Two whistleblowers, from two different fire departments, came forward to KXAN Investigates in the wake of cadet Devon Coney’s recent death, encouraging us to take a closer look at concerns that prompted changes to the training academy.
On the morning of June 25, Coney, 34, was getting ready for his first day of cadet training with AFD. Less than an hour into the training, Coney suffered an “unknown medical emergency," says Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks. He later died at the hospital, making him the first cadet to ever die on the job.
KXAN Investigator Kylie McGivern discovered Coney wasn’t the only cadet taken to the hospital that day. Multiple sources tell KXAN, which was confirmed by AFD, that a second cadet was also sent to the hospital the same morning. Both men were transported for rhabdomyolysis (called rhabdo for short), a potentially life-threatening condition where muscle breakdown can lead to severe kidney damage.
"We have a high-risk job. And you cannot prepare a civilian to be a firefighter in 6.5 months unless you put them through some stressful exercises,” Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks said.
Nicks said the two recent cases have been “so baffling,” and that’s why it’s important to have a third-party agency like NIOSH come in to investigate.
NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It’s Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program conducts independent investigations of firefighters who die in the line of duty. NIOSH will conduct an audit of AFD’s training academy in mid-August and provide any recommendations.
ESD 4 Sounds the Alarm
Leading up to Coney’s death, there were already questions and concerns about the AFD academy, KXAN learned. Many of the complaints came forth when Travis County's Emergency Services District 4 (ESD 4) merged with AFD last year.
Last summer, running up and down AFD’s drill town and completing exercises at the top, is when a cadet says a lieutenant pushed his legs in a way that caused more pain to a known back injury. A formal complaint filed, alleging harassment and assault, only conveys part of ESD 4’s history of concerns with AFD’s training academy. The story is told through a 60-page string of emails between August and October of last year that KXAN obtained through a public records request.
ESD 4’s training with the academy, upon the merger with AFD, was the first of its kind. Because these were men and women already working as firefighters, AFD’s typical 6.5-month class training schedule was originally condensed into 10 weeks for the ESD 4 cadets.
If you stop, you are ridiculed. If you pass out, you are ridiculed.
That timeline was later lengthened by a few weeks, but Austin’s firefighters’ union president acknowledged there were problems.
“There’s some kind of communication lost between what their expectations were and what the academy’s expectations were. That created a lot of strife for the first several weeks of that academy. And I think that created some of the problems,” Nicks said. “Trying to get them ramped up so we could pass everybody in 10 weeks looked like an almost impossible thing. The instructors pushed as hard as they could and they probably pushed too hard.”
In the emails between ESD 4 and AFD leadership, KXAN Investigates discovered ESD 4 alerted city management to what was going on, saying in the first week of training, three cadets were sent to the hospital. Thirteen cadets later needed medical examination and treatment for injuries and two cadets withdrew, “citing fear for their personal safety.” In the letter, ESD 4 warned, “We have grave concerns about how many of our members will survive to the end.”
Nicks said there is a set curriculum, with exercise physiologists tied into the academy and most workouts are “under the guidance or at least design of our wellness center.”
While cases of rhabdo seem to become more common, Nicks said it was in this academy that the union started learning more about its effects.
Rhabdo happens when a breakdown of muscle tissues releases a damaging protein that could lead to extreme muscle strain or a heart stroke, among others.
According to NIOSH, rhabdo can happen to firefighters because they're exposed to "heat and prolonged, intense exertion." NIOSH reports death and permanent disability of firefighters have been associated with heat stress and rhabdo.
According to city documents KXAN requested, nine cadets have been sent to the hospital since 2013; five of them were hospitalized for rhabdo. ESD 4 says at least three of its cadets were also treated for rhabdo just last summer.
Last August, public records show ESD 4 requested for AFD to take “whatever steps are necessary to not allow another case of Rhabdomyolysis in another ESD 4 firefighter,” saying they cannot knowingly continue to place them “at such risk.” In the email to AFD, ESD 4 Fire Chief David Bailey called for new processes, with documentation to back it up.
KXAN has a pending public information request to learn how many cadets had to seek medical treatment for any reason in the last two years.
One former cadet KXAN spoke to said the culture at the training academy "leaves no space to act on your own physical boundaries." The former cadet, who did not wish to be named, said "If you stop, you are ridiculed. If you pass out, you are ridiculed."
The former cadet goes on to say several cadets in their class went to the hospital for "various levels of rhabdomyolysis and heat exhaustion" when they trained on a 108-degree day.
A second former cadet who was in the AFD/ESD 4 merger academy said he was hospitalized just three days into the training. “The temperature outside on the drill field was 105 degrees with a heat index of 113 degrees. After completing the confinement/confidence course, I felt extremely exhausted and weak and my entire body felt numb with a tingling, ‘pins and needles’ sensation," said the cadet. The cadet said doctors told him he had a heat stroke and was diagnosed with rhabdo.
The former cadet went on to tell KXAN, "I also hope they don’t overwork cadets to the point of complete exhaustion, resulting in a medical emergency like mine.”
KXAN asked Nicks if he’s seen more people sent to the hospital or seek medical attention in AFD’s cadet classes. "We seem to, yeah,” Nicks responded, saying he doesn’t understand why. “It seems like we have made good adjustments, but that doesn’t explain what happened with Devon and the other cadet. So, we need to continue to understand the issues better.”
In a statement, AFD’s spokesperson confirmed, “some adjustments were made to the physical training aspects of the academy due to the temperature extremes encountered at that time of year.”
Now, the academy is making sure cadets hydrate. Last year, the program started to weigh cadets at multiple times during the day to evaluate fluid loss. The hydration protocol is considered best practice in the industry.
Nicks stands by AFD’s training academy as one of the best.
“I don’t know of any academy as good as the Austin Fire Department cadet training academy. We’re one of the best, if not the best in the nation. And I can assure the public that these concerns are not taken lightly. We thought we made adjustments to make sure these things weren’t happening, but apparently we need to look at it closer, and we will,” Nicks said. “And if there’s anything that’s discovered from the third-party vendor, I have every confidence the department and the association will make those adjustments and make sure we’re incorporating whatever needs to be incorporated to make the academy as safe as possible.”
AFD tells KXAN it wants to wait until Coney’s autopsy is completed before sitting down for an interview about its training academy. The Medical Examiner’s report is expected to be done by the end of September.
Following up with ESD 4 after last year’s concerns, Bailey told KXAN, "TCESD4 was certainly concerned by both the nature and rate of injuries that occurred during Class 122. It is unfortunate that such an environment was allowed to exist and to mar what has otherwise been a positive relationship between our organizations."
More Cadets Coming Through
Last week, KXAN Investigates reported AFD has hired more cadets to reduce its overtime costs. In the past, the department has run two cadet training classes a year. They doubled that this year, starting five, overlapping classes.
"In all honesty, it's stretched us thin,” Interim Fire Chief Tom Dodds said, calling the additional classes a strain to the organization. “But we do believe we're getting a quality training experience for all the cadets.”
In the past year, the department says it has filled 75 of its more than 100 vacancies.