Pinched hoses and other problems with the breathing devices that Anchorage firefighters trust to keep them alive in smoke-filled buildings have left the firefighters questioning their safety, according to their union.
Firefighters battling blazes inside a smoke-filled, flaming structure wear an air tank on their backs that provides clean air to a mask that fits over their faces. It's called a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, and more than 1,500 fire departments in the United States use an air pack made by Draeger Safety, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based company criticized recently for problems with the packs.
The company says problems reported in Anchorage -- including kinked or pinched air hoses -- are not as serious as those reported at other fire departments. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the newspaper that first reported on potentially life-threatening failures with the packs, federal officials are investigating the Draeger packs after receiving complaints from Anchorage, Phoenix and Dekalb County, Ga., near Atlanta.
Some firefighters reported sucking hot, smoky air into their breathing masks while working to extinguish fires. Two Georgia firefighters suffered injuries from smoke inhalation in those instances, the Journal-Constitution reported. In Anchorage, at least two firefighters have experienced a loss of air when the hoses that link air tanks to the face masks became pinched, an Anchorage firefighters' union spokesman said.
"I can't think of a piece of equipment that's more essential to what we're trying to do," said Eric Tuott, a union official and engineer at Fire Station 4 in Midtown. "This is something that every time you use it you're in a life-or-death situation ..."
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is looking at the Draeger air packs to see if the problems are the result of a design flaw or operator error, the Journal-Constitution reported.
The Anchorage Fire Department reported 44 problems with the air packs since the Municipality of Anchorage bought them, according to the Journal-Constitution. Anchorage purchased about 250 of the Draeger air packs and accessories for $1.54 million, according various sources. The packs went into use here in the summer of 2011, Tuott said.
Perhaps the most serious issue in Anchorage involved firefighter Billy Yelvington, who lost air flow as he was leaving a burning house last winter and a snow-laden deck collapsed on him, according to the firefighters' union. A rookie firefighter also lost his air supply during a training session on another occasion, the union says. Other problems included freezing and sticking valves, Tuott said.
"We started to see enough of these that maybe it wasn't a random problem," he said, adding that the union has so far been pleased with Draeger's response.
Tim Martin, the company's vice president of sales and service, said Tuesday that a company investigation -- which included talking to Anchorage city, fire and union officials in April -- did not determine if Yelvington's pack failed, its hose was pinched by falling debris, or he had the wind knocked out of him. Martin said Anchorage firefighters had never reported inhaling smoke into their masks, as Lower 48 firefighters have, and Yelvington's inability to breathe was an isolated incident among the Anchorage packs.
Draeger is working with the city to fix the problems, whether their packs or operator error are to blame, Martin said.
"The issues that Anchorage is having, and I don't want this to sound dismissive, because they are serious when you're dealing with safety equipment, but they are what we'd classify as lower-order issues," Martin said.
For example, electronic monitors on the air packs can indicate an ongoing problem when there isn't one, Martin said.
"The tolerance is very tight and does cause what we call 'false failures,' " Martin said. "It's an irritation. The fire captain in Anchorage, I believe, said it was an annoying problem. But just because it's annoying doesn't mean we're not addressing it."
"Nobody makes a perfect product, and I'm not going to sit here and say we have a perfect product. But there's a big difference between a critical issue and a non-critical issue."
In a written statement Tuesday, the fire department said officials have been working with Draeger for two months and have identified one of three issues with the air packs. However, city and fire officials refused to answer specific questions about the problems or contemplated solutions on Tuesday, preferring to address the firefighter "difficulties" at a press conference Wednesday.
Tuott, the union representative, said his understanding was that if Draeger did not find a permanent solution -- one that all parties involved approved -- the city could use emergency funds to quickly replace the air packs, which Anchorage firefighters continue to use daily.
Tuott said the firefighters his union represents have used the Draeger air packs for more than a decade without problems. Until recently.
Tuott said it's too soon to say if the most serious issues have been fully addressed. Draeger has been responsive to the department's needs since the problems were reported, he said.
"But at the same time we're not just going to take what they're telling us as the gospel and just assume that everything's going to be all right when we're talking about firefighter safety," Tuott said. "If you happen to be 100 feet into a building, in a darkened environment, it's smoky, and your air pack shuts off on you, that's a long way to go."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.