SCBA Problems Not Limited to Georgia Department

County documented problems similar to Phoenix and Anchorage.
APRIL HUNT, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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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    Georgia Firefighter and Retired Paramedic Rescue Drowning Florida Boy

    Ellis and his wife had just ordered dinner when a woman began screaming.
    ALEXIS STEVENS, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Wednesday, April 25, 2012

    Some people have a hard time separating work from pleasure. But for a Cherokee County firefighter and paramedic, it meant being in the right place to help save a little boy's life.

    Joshua Ellis and his wife had just ordered dinner Saturday night at a restaurant overlooking a pool and beach in Destin, Fla., when they were startled by a woman banging on the windows and screaming.

    Ellis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his first thought was that maybe the woman was locked out of her condo. But he said that when he walked outside, he realized the situation was much more serious.

    "I just remember somebody saying something about their little boy being at the bottom of the pool and they couldn't swim," Ellis said. "He was just laying there and not moving."

    For Ellis, there wasn't any decision to make. All of his years of training as both a firefighter and paramedic had prepared him to be ready for anything, he said. "I just dove in and got him off the bottom," Ellis said.

    It didn't matter that he was fully dressed and had tennis shoes on.

    Ellis said a man who said he was a retired paramedic from Kentucky offered to help, and Ellis handed him the boy, who wasn't breathing and had turned blue around his lips. The two men immediately went to work resuscitating the boy, alternating between chest compressions and CPR, Ellis said.

    The first time they checked for a pulse, it was faint and irregular, Ellis said. The two repeated the CPR. "At that point, it was a really strong pulse," Ellis said.

    With local emergency responders on the way to the resort, Ellis said he got the boy's heart and respiration rates to save paramedics time once the ambulance arrived. But he never got the boy's name, and still doesn't know it. The boy is from Montgomery.

    Ellis said a police officer later called to tell him the boy was expected to make a full recovery.

    Word of Ellis' heroics spread quickly. Still, he said, he only did what he was trained to do.

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    Georgia Firefighter Fired for Refusing to Install Radios

    The 14-year veteran said it wasn't part of his job to install radios
    Joy Lukachick / Chattanooga Times Free Press Published Wednesday, March 21, 2012

    LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- After two-hours of arguments made by a fired firefighter and a packed crowd, council members voted unanimously to uphold the employee's termination.

    Johnny Stephens Jr., a 14-year LaFayette employee, was fired two weeks ago after he was given an order by two different supervisors to install a radio in a public works truck.

    At Stephens' appeal hearing Tuesday night, he told the council it wasn't part of his job to install radios, but in the last five years he had installed them for the police and fire departments upon request.

    City Manager Frank Etheridge told the council that the old radios from the police department had been given to public works because workers in that department didn't have the ability to communicate through radio.

    In a written letter to Stephens, Etheridge said that Public Works Director Mark White had coordinated with Safety Directory Tommy Freeman to have the radios installed in the vehicles.

    But Stephens pointed out that the city had hired a contractor to install several of the radios in other vehicles. "They were looking for cheap labor," Stephens told the council.

    He also told council members that he worked in a hostile environment under Freeman.

    When Freeman's name came up in the meeting, several people in the crowd of about 40 residents began to fire off questions to the council, asking why they never had addressed other complaints against Freeman.

    But City Councilman Ben Bradford tried to bring the discussion back to Stephens.

    Bradford asked Stephens why he didn't file a complaint against Freeman instead of disobeying an order.

    "I'm hearing some things tonight for the first time," Bradford said. "I wish you would have handled your frustration in a different way."

    Stephens told the council he didn't realize that he could file a complaint.

    After the meeting, Freeman said Stephens and others in the crowd were trying to retaliate against him for his decisions. He denied ever yelling at Stephens.

    Council members went into an executive session, and when they returned they voted 4-0 to uphold the termination. Councilman Chris Davis had recused himself from the meeting because he said he knew Stephens.

    Afterward, Bradford said he had heard some things in the meeting that concerned him.

    "Anytime there are allegations made about any employee it concerns me," he said.
     

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    5 Atlanta Lieutenants to Keep Titles During Appeal

    City attorney argues there's no evidence of cheating
    Marcus K. Garner / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published Thursday, March 15, 2012

    Atlanta--A state appeals court Wednesday halted a judge's order to demote five Atlanta firefighters linked to a tainted promotion exam.

    Three other firefighters led a class-action lawsuit contending the city did nothing to address the cheating allegation, and a jury agreed with them.

    But the city on Tuesday appealed the decision of Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly A. Lee that the five firefighters who scored 90 or higher--- an unprecedented mark --- on the 2010 promotion written exam lose their provisional lieutenant status as of today, and be replaced by seven candidates who scored between 60 and 62 on the test.

    "There has been no evidence that there had been any cheating," Deputy City Attorney Eric Richardson contended Wednesday evening in a phone interview.

    Firefighters Roderick Armstrong, Victor Bennett and Jason Johnson filed the suit last year, saying the city didn't investigate allegations that an undisclosed number of Atlanta Fire Rescue employees cheated or were illegally helped on the April 2010 exam.

    While the jury didn't identify any cheaters, Lee, in her decision last week, alluded that the top scorers should be scrutinized.

    "If the people who scored the top scores --- who never scored them before --- didn't cheat, then who did?" she asked during the motions hearing to determine how much the city had to pay in legal fees.

    Lee ruled that about 110 employees, including the five top performers, would be eligible to retest, and that the test should be administered by an independent testing agency.

    But city officials argued that if the demotions went through as scheduled, it would constitute a direct attack on those five firefighters.

    "Five firefighters will lose their jobs," the appellate decision read, citing the city's contention.

    Lee Parks, who represents the three plaintiffs and the 160 other Atlanta Fire employees in the class action, could not be reached Wednesday evening for comment.

    Richardson added to his concerns for the five firefighters who would be affected by Lee's injunction.

    "Ordering these firefighters to retake a test denies them due process and full protection," he said. "They were never sued. The lawsuit was against the city."

    While the appeal asks a higher court to explore the verdict rendered last month, Richardson said it also helps to maintain the status quo.

    "What this does is allow all the firefighters to stay in their current positions while we argue the merits of the appeal," he said.
     

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