Firefighters PASS Device Might Be Failing. On February 5, 2007, Senator John Kerry requested the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explore deeply troubling information from an MSNBC.com special report signifying that the federal unit charged with probing firefighter deaths overlooked a warning in 2000 that personal alarms used at fire scenes might be failing. “It is completely unacceptable that our first responders don’t have the proper safety equipment, and if these allegations prove true, it’s unfathomable that the CDC would cover up something so detrimental to our firefighters’ safety,” Kerry told MSNBC.com. An estimated 1 million courageous men and women put their lives at risk every day; we owe it to them and to the families of the deceased firefighters to get answers and hold the negligent parties accountable.”
The PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) device is a motion sensor that makes a dreadful racket if a firefighter stops moving for 30 seconds while combating a blaze. The device flashes its lights and lets loose a sequence of ear splitting beeps; alerting others that a fellow firefighter is in danger. Unfortunately, it’s a call that is not heard all the time. Tests by federal and independent labs illustrate that some PASS alarms can fail to perform as intended if they get too hot or wet, which causes a serious problem for firefighters who rush into burning buildings with water hoses. Federal investigative reports evaluated by MSNBC.com shows that 15 firefighters have died since 1998 in fires where a PASS, (Personal Alert Safety System) device, either didn’t sound or was so quiet that rescuers weren’t given a chance to find the firefighter quickly. The first generation of PASS devices were introduced in the early 1980s.
Documents made public under the Freedom of Information Act disclose that nine of those deaths came after the federal government blocked an investigation by its own expert into possible failures of PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) devices and other firefighting equipment. A manager for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency that is charged by Congress with investigating firefighter deaths, ordered an agency fire safety engineer on Feb. 14, 2000, to “minimize your fact gathering during investigations” and to restrict his investigations to issues relevant for the prevention of future similar events.
In March 2005, the CDC’s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) firefighter fatality program finally recommended that manufacturers, researchers and standard-setting bodies should investigate the performance of PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) devices under extreme conditions, and the following month called for higher standards for the devices. After the CDC’s warning, tests quickly demonstrated that temperatures commonly encountered by firefighters could hurt the performance of at least some PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) devices.
Tests in a convection oven at the National Institute of Standards and Technology found a flaw with the two models it tested: the volume of the beeping diminished significantly at temperatures as low as 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the sort of temperatures that firefighters come across in a room next to a fire. Researchers said they believe that all of the half-dozen or so brands of PASS (Personal Alert Safety System), alarms on the market would be similarly affected. Additionally, a number of PASS (Personal Alert Safety System), devices made by at least three manufacturers have had problems over the past decade with water leaking into the electronics or battery compartments, causing them to either beep repeatedly or stop working altogether, according to interviews and documents reviewed by MSNBC.com.
A tougher new standard for testing PASS (Personal Alert Safety System), devices in heat and water is going to be issued by the National Fire Protection Association. But manufacturers say it will be months before an improved device is on the market. And even when new models are available, there is no plan for recalling the old ones, so fire departments may have to bear the cost of replacing them.