By Author(s): Jane Jerrard 
Published Friday, March 20, 2009
| From the April 2007  Issue of FireRescue 
In early February, the article "Flaws found in firefighters' last line of defense" appeared on MSNBC.com. The report caused a stir in the fire industry by highlighting life-threatening flaws in firefighter Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) devices, as well as problems with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigations into firefighter deaths.
Specifically, the MSNBC article outlined how independent tests proved that some PASS alarms might fail to perform well-or at all-if they become too hot or too wet. The alarms are required to shriek at 95 decibels for 1 hour when a firefighter stops moving; tests in a convection oven at the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that two models showed a substantial reduction in volume at just 300 degrees F.
The article went on to accuse NIOSH of ignoring and possibly covering up problems with PASS devices in specific firefighter deaths.
Within days of the MSNBC.com article's publication, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) issued a position statement addressing PASS standards, recommendations for manufacturers, the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality and Prevention program and future investigations of firefighter deaths. The statement outlined a new standard for PASS devices (see below) and strongly encouraged all device manufacturers to provide a cost-effective modification or upgrade to existing PASS devices.
I. David Daniels, fire chief and emergency management director for the City of Renton, Wash., is chair of IAFC's Safety, Health and Survival Section (SHS). "We're the most rabid safety-zealot fire chiefs in the country," Daniels says of the approximately 700 members of the section. Immediately after the articles appeared on MSNBC.com , the SHS convened a working group to study the issues and provide recommendations to the board-but this was not the first time they addressed problems with PASS devices. "[The IAFC has] looked at this issue before," Daniels says. "We sent out an advisory to our membership in December 2005; we let our membership know that it was a problem, and we received phone calls and questions from around the country."
Billy Goldfeder, deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department, is a national firefighter safety expert, vice chair of the SHS and co-host of www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com . He was surprised that some fire departments were shocked by the MSNBC article. "This is not new information," he says. "It's critical to pay attention to and act on announcements" from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the IAFC, as well as other fire service organizations.
The Future of NIOSH Fatality Reports
The recently released IAFC statement also includes support for the current NIOSH system, but promises that the organization will partner with the IAFF and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), among others, to begin to identify funding issues and needs related to NIOSH's Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program.
Daniels calls the allegations regarding the NIOSH fatality reports "an issue of some concern." The IAFC responded by creating a special task force to look into how or whether the Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program should be overhauled. "We'll really be able to give some better recommendations to the federal government as to what this thing should be, what it should do," he says.
Although concerned, Goldfeder stresses the positive aspects of the NIOSH program as well. "It's very hard to argue that they have not made a positive difference preventing firefighter fatalities in areas such as revisions in NFPA standards, changes in fire training programs, equipment design, etc.," he says. "Their work and their reports have absolutely saved firefighters' lives." However, Goldfeder does believe communication between firefighters and NIOSH can be improved. "When I think about the many seasoned fire service veterans who may be retired, for example, what a wealth of information they could provide as a much more active part of the NIOSH program," he says. "Highly educated fire officers who have gone to thousands of fires ? imagine how much their input, their full-time input, would matter."
A New NFPA Standard
Immediately following the MSNBC story, the 2007 edition of NFPA 1982, Standard on Personal Alert Safety Systems, became available. Although the timing seemed planned, it was, in fact, coincidental.
"In reality, the standard started about 2 ÃÂ« years back," says Bruce Varner, fire chief for the City of Santa Rosa (Calif.) Fire Department, who sits on the committee that oversaw the new NFPA standard. "We'd had reports from NIOSH about alarms not being heard and about water affecting them; at the time, we did not know about problems with heat." Varner's committee began addressing "a number of issues raised by NIOSH and tests on the devices," he recalls. "What started in my committee as renewal and clean-up became a bigger project."
The result is a version of the PASS device standard that contains the following updates:
- New water-immersion requirements and testing, including exposure to 350-degree F air for 15 minutes, followed by submersion in 1.5 meters of water for six 15-minute cycles. The PASS device is then tested to ensure it functions properly, including its electronic data-logging functions. After testing, the PASS is re-immersed in the water for 5 minutes with the power source compartment(s) open, then removed, wiped dry and checked for water ingress.
- New high-temperature functionality requirements and testing, with the device mounted in a 500-degree circulating hot-air oven for 5 minutes.
- New tumble-vibration requirements and testing, with the device tumbled in a rotating drum for 3 hours.
- New "muffling" of the alarm signal requirements and testing, with the PASS mounted on a test subject and then evaluated in five positions.
PASS manufacturers have 6 months to comply with the new standard. Representatives from these companies have actively participated in researching problems and creating the new standard.
"The sound device is the same across all manufacturers," Varner explains. "The existing product can't meet the new standard, and they're currently looking for other solutions. What we're hearing is that a couple of them will have a device that meets the standard."
Departmental replacement of PASS devices "will happen faster now, with federal government monies available," Daniels predicts. As for speed of replacement, he says, "It doesn't matter how big or small you are. It's a question of timing-if you just purchased PASS devices last year, you're not going to buy them again right away."
Goldfeder?is concerned about using federal funding for replacement devices. "I don't think that federal grant money should have to be used by the fire departments for the fix, when so many fire departments have recently purchased [the new equipment]," he says. "I think the manufacturers should be providing a fix. This doesn't need to be a profit-making venture; they're fixing something that should have been fixed a long time ago. For a nominal fee, they should be providing upgrades to their existing integrated SCBA PASS devices."
As for how universal the revised PASS device will become, that remains to be seen. "Standards are just that. We can't impose them on anyone," Daniels says. "They simply provide important guidance. It will take action on the part of individual departments."
In the meantime, the IAFC's recommendations to fire chiefs include:
- Immediately test your existing SCBAs and PASS devices and related operational-readiness systems.
- Immediately contact the manufacturer(s) of your PASS devices to ask about any reported problems with the devices. Also ask what upgrades they'll be offering to ensure the devices meet NFPA 1982.
Remember: Firefighter safety is the ultimate goal. "The continued use of PASS devices is one component of a good system," Varner stresses. "There's real concern about PASS, but that device should be a last-ditch effort-the overall safety of firefighters is the most important thing to focus on."
Read the complete MSNBC.com article at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16890732  and the complete NFPA standard 1982 at www.iafc.org/displayindustryarticle.cfm?articlenbr=32844 .
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