Charleston firefighters to be equipped with better air packs

By Glenn Smith
The Post and Courier
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Charleston firefighters will soon be equipped with state-of-the-art air packs to provide them with a longer-lasting supply of breathable air when they enter burning buildings.

City Council on Tuesday approved spending $811,969 to buy 140 new air packs, enough to outfit every on-duty firefighter and have extra tanks in reserve, city officials said. Firefighters also will receive fitted face masks to deliver the air.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas followed the recommendations of a Fire Department committee in selecting the equipment, said Mark Ruppel, the department's public information officer.

Larger capacity tanks also were recommended by a panel of experts hired by the city to evaluate the Fire Department in the wake of the June 18 Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine city firefighters. The panel urged the city to upgrade to a single brand of tanks that meets all current national standards.

The city now uses 30-minute air tanks, which may actually provide less air in real world conditions in which firefighters are stressed and breathing heavily. The new tanks will hold 45 minutes of air.

All nine of the firefighters killed at the sofa store died from smoke inhalation and severe burns. An air tank was found with each body inside the store and investigators are examining the condition of those tanks. No determination has been made on whether the tanks were a factor in their deaths.

Battalion Chief Robert O'Donald, assistant to Thomas and a member of the department's health and safety committee, said the new air packs will be equipped with tracking devices to help rescue teams locate fallen firefighters. Charleston's will be one of the first large fire departments in the nation to use the devices, he said.

Roger Yow, president of the Charleston Firefighters Association, said acquiring the larger-capacity air packs is "a good move forward" for the department. He said most departments switched to individual, fitted face masks a decade earlier because of concerns about spreading communicable diseases by sharing masks.

The city also has approved $27,371 in change orders to two fire trucks it is purchasing. Among other things, the money will pay for air conditioning in the cabs, headsets to improve firefighter communications and changes to accommodate larger diameter hose lines, O'Donald said. The changes are in line with recommendations by the city's expert consultants.

The city has long relied on supply hoses about half the diameter of those used by most fire departments. Several experts have said those smaller lines left firefighters struggling to get enough water at the sofa store blaze.

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