Ga. department replaces SCBA after firefighter near-miss

Firefighters to get Scott Safety equipment, department may file for refund

April Hunt
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

DECATUR, Ga. — DeKalb County firefighters could be wearing $2 million in new gear in the next 45-60 days, now that the County Commission agreed to replace more than 300 malfunctioning air packs.

"It's a great pack," Doug Harms, a firefighter at Station 24 on Redan Road, said of the Scott Safety packs that he and a committee of firefighters recommended after doing field tests last week. "Everyone I've talked to at my station, this is welcome equipment."

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation this year revealed years of failures with the current packs, devices that give firefighters clean air to breathe while battling fires.

Records show that shortly after DeKalb began using Draeger Safety air packs in 2009, firefighters began reporting serious problems: Their air supply would occasionally cut off, and pieces would sometimes fall off the packs.

Commissioners agreed in February to replace the Draeger gear, which had been expected to last a decade. Officials had since reviewed presentations from four manufacturers on how their devices would perform in the high-volume department, which handled 371 structure fires last year.

Fire officials sped up the testing process, originally planned for August, after a firefighter had to jump from a two-story window after his pack cut off air during a fire in June. It was the 29th reported "near miss" with the packs that put a firefighter in danger.

Tuesday's vote allows the county to replace the entire Draeger packs, including the air bottles, masks and regulators. It also will pay for training on the new gear, which is used by fire departments in Atlanta, Cobb and Gwinnett counties, among others.

DeKalb also used the Scott packs before switching to Draeger, said Fire Chief Edward O'Brien. That should cut down on training time, so the new packs can be in the field as soon as the manufacturer can deliver them.

"When the equipment is ready, we will be ready as a department to deploy," O'Brien said. "The important thing is the firefighters are safe and are confident in their equipment."

The issues with Draeger, though, will linger. The county still uses Draeger technicians for maintenance of the current packs, though it is no longer negotiating about how to solve the malfunctions.

Draeger has steadfastly said a lack of proper maintenance, not a design flaw, is behind the problems.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health agreed with that assessment this month, after testing two pieces of a Draeger pack that had failed during a fire. The federal agency is still reviewing other gear sent in, including the entire pack from the June incident.

The results of those tests will help the county decide if it has grounds to sue for a return of the $1.8 million in federal grant money it used to buy the Draeger packs, said Chief Operating Officer Richard Stogner. The administration plans to brief commissioners on that later this summer.

Copyright 2012
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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