Augusto Acabou and Wayne Brooks Jr.

In the face of mounting pressure from the IAFF and others, Newark, New Jersey, officials recently proposed several safety measures after two fire fighters – Augusto “Augie” Acabou and Wayne “Bear” Brooks Jr – died responding to a July cargo ship fire. 

The suggested changes reported by NJ.com, the state’s largest news and information site, include: creating a special joint task force to consider legislative and other changes; building a marine firefighting training facility at the port; and adding a specialized Newark Fire Division group that would be given advanced training for responding to shipboard fires.  

However, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka told NJ.com the reforms should wait until the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, and other agencies finish their investigations. 

The IAFF applauds the proposals but will continue to press for immediate implementation. 

“We have been calling for changes since the tragic loss of Acabou and Brooks back in July,” General President Edward Kelly told NJ.com, noting that the Newark Firefighters Union voted overwhelmingly to reaffiliate with the International shortly after the incident to address health and safety concerns in the city. It retained its original number, Local 71. (Newark Fire Officers Local 1860 was already an affiliate.) 

“Better staffing and training lead to a safer Newark for residents and a safer working environment for fire fighters,” Kelly said. 

Separately, the Coast Guard on Nov. 20 released a nationwide Marine Safety Alert. The alert agreed that the Newark fire department “had little to no maritime firefighting training, experience, or familiarization with cargo ships of any type.” 

The Coast Guard “strongly recommended” a two-pronged approach that would “establish regular shipboard firefighting education and training” and “develop training, qualification, and response doctrine utilizing guidance from the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standards.” 

Acabou and Brooks were the first Newark fire fighters to die in the line of duty in more than 20 years. Both were trapped on the 692-foot freighter loaded with 1,200 highly combustible junk cars and trucks bound for West Africa. 

A fire boat works to extinguish the cargo ship fire, which led to the deaths of two Newark fire fighters.

Neither had been on such a vessel, much less received adequate training for responding to a fire on one. In fact, the lack of sufficient instruction and experience is now known to be a department-wide problem. 

“It was clear the Newark Fire Department had no program in place to adequately train fire fighters for shipboard fires — a known threat, given the largest port on the East Coast is in its city,” Kelly said. “Had the department been better prepared on July 5, we might have seen a different response.” 

The investigation by NJ.com confirmed Kelly’s argument. The report also revealed that Newark’s fireboat was out of commission and fire fighters didn’t know they needed a standard international adapter for their hoses. Above all, the report made clear that fire fighters were put unnecessarily at risk when they were sent deep into the ship by the city’s failure to obtain the proper resources to conduct safe shipyard firefighting. 

The organization’s full report can be found in three parts online: Part One, Part Two,and Part Three. The Star-Ledger also penned an editorial criticizing what it saw as “insufficient training, inadequate equipment, and lethal ignorance,” all issues that were also flagged by the union.

“Today, the Newark Fire Division is no better trained than before July 5 when it comes to Port Newark,” former Local 1860 President Anthony Tarantino told NJ.com. “There are multiple plans that the mayor has been presented to start training immediately.” 

Tarantino said waiting any longer to start shipyard fire training was too risky. In fact, he suggested calling the Coast Guard and surrounding cities with fire fighters who have received proper training for any future shipyard fires until Newark fire fighters had received the training.  

“We don’t need to wait for a Coast Guard report to tell us Newark firefighters weren’t trained for shipboard fires on July 5. We don’t need to wait for a NIOSH investigation to know the city’s staffing levels are dangerous,” Kelly said. “This IAFF will continue to use its influence to push for immediate action on these safety proposals because when it comes to fire fighter and public safety, there is no time to wait.”