New breathing apparatus for San Antonio firefighters is in town

Copyright 2006 San Antonio Express-News
All Rights Reserved 
San Antonio Express-News (Texas)

Breathe easy, San Antonio.

New firefighter breathing equipment arrived Saturday morning, after months of anxiety amid sporadic problems with the current gear, ranging from broken air valves to masks that fell apart in firefighters' hands.

Fire officials hope the packs, called self-contained breathing apparatus, will be ready for use by June 12 after a week of field tests at the fire services warehouse on Zarzamora Street. Most firefighters already have been fitted for their new air masks.

"We pushed this through as fast as possible," said San Antonio Fire Department Deputy Chief Rodney Hitzfelder.

The City Council voted April 21 to purchase equipment from Scott Health and Safety, which SAFD had worked with until 2005, when it bought the current equipment, made by Interspiro Inc.

Rarely has the arrival of new equipment garnered so much interest. Both Fire Chief Robert Ojeda and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, wearing the shorts and T-shirt she sported for an anti-graffiti event earlier in the day, stopped by to watch a small forklift slowly move the boxes of equipment into the fire services warehouse.

"We're anxious to get them on the backs of our firefighters," Ojeda said.

Focus on the new equipment never abated, especially in the light of two incidents last week when the Interspiro-made packs malfunctioned during two separate fires. On Friday a firefighter had trouble removing his breathing mask after he fought a blaze inside a home on Lambert.

That followed a Memorial Day episode in which one firefighter was forced to dive out of a first-floor window because air stopped flowing from his breathing tank to his air mask. A fire captain at the same scene watched as his mask broke when he tried to strap it onto his face.

The new packs — a little over 400 apparatuses in all — will be enough to outfit all of the firefighters who work during any given shift and leave a few extras for training and replacement purposes, Hitzfelder said.

Scott Health and Safety pushed through the San Antonio order, because the city was in "an emergency situation," Sculley said.

Fire officials originally voted to switch equipment manufacturers last year, because the gear was too old and Interspiro Inc. offered a more enticing bid, Hitzfelder said.

Then sporadic problems began. But fire officials refrained from raising the issue publicly until November, when five packs failed in one weekend.

The issue broke on Sculley's first day in the city manager post.

From then on, she said city officials worked "expeditiously" with Interspiro to fix the problems, but then a new malfunction would emerge.

"We kept moving from this issue to another issue to another issue," she said. "And that's when we said, enough is enough."

Hitzfelder said Interspiro Inc. is working with SAFD for input on the equipment so they can resolve issues with the gear.

"We certainly want to take care of our brother firefighters in other parts of the country," Hitzfelder said.

For the sake of safety

--The $2 million purchase authorized April 21 replaces the malfunctioning equipment with breathing gear manufactured by Scott Health and Safety, which the department used for 15 years before the city switched to Interspiro.

--Scott Health and Safety provided an eight-year warranty on the system, coverage of parts for five years and multiple other warranties covering various parts of the system.

--The City Council also approved $6.8million to buy 19 pumper trucks. Because of the cost of replacing the equipment, SAFD decided to defer delivery of five trucks until December. 

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