Complaints about DeKalb fire gear heat up

The company that makes the air packs DeKalb County firefighters say have malfunctioned from day one is expected to offer a solution to the problem by Friday.

But even if Draeger Safety offers 330 new devices to replace the entire fleet in use for free, Fire Chief Edward O’Brien said the price is too high.

“The confidence level is just not there,” O’Brien said. “Given the three-year track record we’ve had, it is just not a good fit for us.”

Tim Martin, Draeger's vice president of sales, met with O’Brien this week to go over concerns about the packs, which provide compressed air for firefighters to breathe as they battle blazes.

Martin said the Pittsburgh company stood by its product, with more than 1 million in use worldwide. He blamed lack of proper maintenance for the 22 “near misses” with malfunctioning and failing packs in the field during the first 18 months after they came online in DeKalb in 2009.

Specifically, he said he and and his team found O-rings without lubrication as well as dirt and other particles clogging important pieces of the gear.

“We cannot overstate the importance of knowing how to maintain this equipment,” Martin said. “We are not confident the maintenance program is robust enough in DeKalb.”

O'Brien countered that basic maintenance is always done after a fire. But in the busy department -- which handled 371 structure fires last year -- there often isn't time for significant work on equipment.

"Firefighting is a dirty, nasty job, and we can't take our packs out of service after every fire," he said. "We have to be able to wash it off and go, because sometimes we're heading right out to another fire."

Martin would not comment on what potential solutions the firm would offer to get the air packs back in condition. Draeger already has trained nearly four dozen DeKalb firefighters how to properly care for the gear, he said.

County leaders may want far more than additional training or support. Calls for legal action against Draeger increased this week, especially after officials learned three more packs had problems last weekend. In the most severe case, a broken mouthpiece on one pack forced a firefighter inside a burning home to rush outside for air.

“We are looking into all of our options, including those in the legal arena,” county spokesman Burke Brennan said.

“If we have to completely replace this equipment, I’m in support of going after them for our expenditures,” Commissioner Elaine Boyer said. “It’s not just money spent. It’s about the safety of our firefighters.”

The commission is expected to approve taking $2 million out of the fire department’s rainy day fund when it votes on the 2012 budget Tuesday. That would cover costs to buy all new packs, which is what O'Brien has requested.

He wants to look at several other manufacturers, not Draeger. The new gear would not be in use until summer because of purchasing rules.

Firefighters welcome the possibility of new air packs. Many have told Nathan Leota, president of the DeKalb Professional Firefighters Local #1492, they are nervous about the gear. They want to be able to rush to calls focused on the fires, not whether their equipment might have problems, he said.

“This is the most important piece of equipment for a firefighter, and we take very good care of it because it protects us,” Leota said. “To keep using them, it’s not a gamble I’m willing to take with our members.”

Martin said he didn’t know until this week that DeKalb was considering replacing its air packs or that the issue had become contentious. He and O’Brien agreed they had a productive meeting this week to lay out concerns and possible solutions.

He disagreed, though, that the packs are to blame and said it “doesn’t sit well” to hear firefighters are uneasy with Draeger products.

“We obviously have a common goal, and that is to keep firefighters in DeKalb County safe,” Martin said. “We are working with DeKalb and will continue working with them for as long as they have the equipment to make sure their people are safe.”