The same air packs that cut off some DeKalb County firefighters' air supply in burning buildings --- problems the manufacturer blamed on the firefighters themselves --- have caused similar problems in other fire departments.
Firefighters in Phoenix and Anchorage have reported their Draeger Safety air packs had the same issues, from a loss of clean air to disintegrating mouthpieces, while battling blazes, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.
"This is more than morale," DeKalb Fire Chief Edward O'Brien said. "This is more than reputation. This can be life and death."
DeKalb spent $1.87 million in 2008 to buy the packs, using federal grant money that came from taxpayers nationwide. The county is about to spend another $2.4 million of local taxpayer dollars to buy new packs to replace them later this year, even though the Draeger gear was supposed to last a decade.
A federal agency is investigating whether the Draeger product's problems stem from faulty design or user error. The outcome could determine whether DeKalb can get any of its money back. Draeger sticks by its original conclusion that the string of complaints and problems are unrelated.
"We feel that the issues that DeKalb is having are unique to DeKalb," said Tim Martin, vice president of sales and service for the Pittsburgh company.
"I know there have been other reported issues at other departments," he said when asked about reports of similar failures in Phoenix. "But to be brutally honest, there are enough regulating agencies out there that if our product was not safe, it would not be on the market."
The company told DeKalb it was alone in having problems when firefighters began reporting gasping for air from malfunctions and failures with the packs shortly after the 330 units came online in 2009.
The county documented 27 "near misses," defined as a problem that put a firefighter in immediate danger, during the first two years of use. At least two firefighters were taken to local hospitals for treatment of smoke inhalation in those cases, which are noted in county reports as "catastrophic" loss potential.
Documents obtained last winter by the AJC showed that Draeger said lack of maintenance caused the problems and that no other agencies the company worked with had suffered similar issues. DeKalb is the only major metro Atlanta department to use the brand.
But newly obtained records from the Phoenix Fire Department show their problems mirror DeKalb's, right down to the timeline. The Arizona department bought more than 800 units for use starting in 2009.
By April 2011, fire officials sent a certified letter demanding a "cure" to operational problems, including 120 packs that had broken during use. Phoenix fire officials would not comment, referring instead to the records requested by the AJC.
Among them: incident reports showing dozens of cases where firefighters complain in their own words about breathing in hot, deadly smoke when the gear failed.
"Approximately 25 feet into the house, I started breathing black heated smoke, which caused me to have difficulty breathing," Phoenix firefighter Ray Maione wrote when his airflow was cut and the facepiece of his gear separated in July 2011. "This is a very dangerous situation that really needs to be addressed before one of our members gets seriously hurt or worse."
Draeger didn't notify DeKalb of those problems. It also did not tell Phoenix that a month before, a firefighter in DeKalb reported a similar problem.
"I ... was inside the structure when my facepiece sucked to my face and was unable to get air," DeKalb firefighter Ken Anderson wrote of a malfunction during a June 2011 house fire.
Martin said he did not have knowledge of specific incidents such as those, which describe the same failures.
But he said that nearly all reports were "low-order" complaints that did not put firefighters' lives in jeopardy. He cited a 2001 U.S. Fire Administration report that concluded most air-pack failures, regardless of manufacturer, are attributed to operator error or inadequate maintenance.
"We provide [gear] to 1,500 fire departments nationwide," he said. "It's unfortunate to focus on the rare few who have had issues with it."
Martin said he could not name other departments reporting pack failures, but records obtained by the AJC show that this winter, the Anchorage Fire Department reported 44 failures with Draeger packs less than two years after paying $1.54 million for the gear.
Anchorage fire officials also did not comment. However, fire Captain Mike Murphy wrote in January that a cursory look faulted internal issues for half the problems but blamed Draeger for the other half, noting the "high percentage of failures" for new gear.
By March, the problems showed no signs of letting up. "This is an annoying, ongoing problem," Murphy wrote. "Since we are having this many failures now, I'm concerned with the rate of failures we might have . . . as these age."
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health had the same concern.
The federal agency evaluates and certifies breathing gear for firefighters and miners and also can withdraw certification. Since DeKalb and Phoenix complained the Draeger packs were not performing as expected, the agency has been testing the gear at its Pittsburgh lab.
"We want to see if it produces the same problem, if it's a maintenance issue or if there is some other issue," spokeswoman Christina Spring said. The agency has yet to issue any findings.
If the agency finds fault with Draeger, some DeKalb officials want to sue for a refund. The county legal department said it is "reviewing all options."
"We shouldn't have to pay for replacing their faulty equipment," DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson said.
Martin said Draeger stands by its analysis that the problems stem from maintenance, not safety issues. The company is cooperating with the NIOSH investigation and believes any reports will vindicate the firm.
It will come too late to save business in DeKalb and Phoenix, though. DeKalb has already met with one group of vendors vying to provide new air packs and meets on Thursday with the next group.
Each bidder is submitting several air packs for live testing. DeKalb is expected to decide on a supplier this summer.
Meantime, with DeKalb firefighters responding to structure fires at a rate of more than once a day, two DeKalb Fire Department technicians have stopped handling other gear to focus full-time on keeping the Draeger packs as pristine as possible until they are replaced.
"We asked [Draeger] if anyone else had these incidents, but their answer was that it was our personnel that was the problem," O'Brien, the fire chief, said. "It's frustrating stuff. But we know we're getting new packs. We are moving along as fast as we can."
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