A DeKalb County firefighter had to jump out of a second-story window last week when his air pack suddenly cut off his air supply as he battled a house fire in south DeKalb.
NIOSH Report on Equipment from DeKalb County Fire Rescue Department
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation this spring revealed years of failures with the same air packs, breathing devices that provide firefighters with clean air 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.
The firefighter suffered a cut to his leg from the broken glass and smoke inhalation in the June 26 incident on Woody Court, said Deputy Chief Norman Augustin. The firefighter, a veteran of several years whose name was not released, was treated for both injuries at a local hospital and released.
"The firefighter did have to exit rather quickly," Augustin said. "The incident is still being investigated, but we know there was an issue with the pack."
There have been at least 29 incidents in which firefighters were put in immediate danger, according to county records. Prior to the June 26 fire, at least two firefighters had been taken to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation.
DeKalb is in the process of putting together a bid request to spend $2.4 million of taxpayer dollars to buy new packs later this year, even though the Draeger gear was supposed to last a decade.
No other major department in metro Atlanta uses that brand.
The slow bid process and latest incident alarms union officials, who united with fire Chief Edward O'Brien earlier this year in pushing for new gear.
"Every day we don't have new packs, it's a day we are taking extra risks we shouldn't," said Nathan Leota, president of DeKalb Professional Firefighters Local 1492. "All this near miss does is highlight that this is still happening."
A federal agency is investigating whether the Draeger product's problems stem from faulty design or user error.
DeKalb had already sent parts of several malfunctioning packs to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and this week sent the entire device that failed last week.
An investigation is ongoing, according to a NIOSH spokeswoman.
The outcome could determine whether DeKalb can get back any of the $1.87 million it spent on the gear. Draeger sticks by its original conclusion that the string of complaints and problems are unrelated.
"In what world is it acceptable [that] a firefighter is bailing out of a second floor window because the equipment is not functioning properly," asked Commissioner Elaine Boyer. "Before a tragedy occurs, I really hope we can get new equipment."
O'Brien said his department is meeting next week with purchasing officials to get a request for bids out before potential replacements are field tested.
An in-house committee from the fire department will then test potential packs at the training academy, and the results will be used to decide which replacement to recommend.
The original timeline, which called for having that work done this summer, will be pushed to early fall. In the meantime, technicians are working to try to keep the existing packs in the best shape possible to avoid more problems.
"We are working on it," O'Brien said. "It is a priority for us."
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