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Federal unit 'ignored' concerns over PASS devices

Feb 5, 2007 |

A safety expert's warning on the reliability of firefighters' Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS) went unheeded by a federal agency for five years, according to an investigative report released today by

According to part one of the two-part series, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) called for higher standards for testing PASS alarms in April 2005.

But a firefighter protection engineer at the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) first raised concerns to bosses about the devices in 2000.

The CDC did not return FireRescue1's requests for comment.

The CDC was given responsibility in 1998 for investigating firefighter deaths and finding ways to prevent future fatalities. Fifteen firefighters have died since then in fires where a PASS device failed to sound or was too quiet, said the report.

Reliability questioned
Nine of the fatalities occurred in the five years after firefighter protection engineer Eric Schmidt first voiced fears over the reliability of the devices while investigating a house fire in Iowa that killed three firefighters.

The three firefighters had each been wearing two PASS devices but no colleagues recalled hearing alarms from two of the men, the report claimed.

But Dawn Castillo, head of the firefighter program at the NIOSH, allegedly criticized aspects of Schmidt’s probes, reportedly hampering his investigations into possible PASS failures.

Schmidt was dismissed by the CDC in 2000 for "marginal" performance in his investigative duties.

Following the CDC’s decision in 2005 to call for stricter testing, a tougher new standard for testing PASS devices will be issued by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) this week.

Tests have revealed some devices fail to function properly if they are too hot or wet.

Alarm at delays
FireRescue1 columnist Jeffrey Stull, president of International Personnel Protection, Inc., which provides expertise on the design and evaluation of equipment, said he was alarmed by the CDC’s apparent delays in addressing concerns.

"The groups that put together a standard do the best job they can, but they don't always get it right," he said.

"Just because something is certified, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is going to work perfectly all of the time.

"There needs to be a government group that oversees life-safety equipment, and an enforcement process and mechanism, so when something does go wrong or there are concerns they are addressed straight away."

Sen. John Kerry is now calling for the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the CDC's handling of the case.

In a letter to its inspector general, he said, "The allegations … are disturbing and warrant an exhaustive federal review. We owe it to the families of the deceased firefighters as well as the nearly 1 million firefighters who still use PASS devices to get answers and hold the negligent parties to account."

'Basic safety ignored'
Michael Petroff, western region director for the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA), said while the matter highlighted possible government bureaucracy, it raised other concerns, too.

Firefighters sometimes relied too heavily on technology and protective gear in untenable situations, he said, while ignoring basic safety procedures.

"In several of the 15 deaths reported, the firefighters were in locations unknown to command, which is failure of accountability, firefighters were alone, or the firefighter lost his/her way out of the building, which could be a lack of basic firefighting technique to follow a hoseline or search rope," Petroff said.
 "We (firefighters) may be relying on flawed or unproven technology. And, because of our overconfidence, we are ignoring basic simple safety rules.

"The PASS device is the best tool we have for its purpose, right now. I am afraid some overreaction may now occur. Firefighters may see the reports, decide the devices don't work, and stop using them."

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