PHOENIX, Ariz. - Problems with breathing equipment have left some DeKalb County firefighters gasping for air while fighting fires.
The issues were uncovered in a two-year Channel 2 Action News investigation. The manufacturer of the equipment said DeKalb’s problems were limited to the county, but Channel 2 anchor Erin Coleman uncovered problems that stretch well beyond metro Atlanta.
After a series of reports on DeKalb’s issues with German Draeger-brand air packs, callers from across the country contacted Channel 2 with similar stories, and now, a federal agency is investigating the claims.
DeKalb County Fire Chief Edward O'Brien said his equipment is relatively new, but started to fail, and put his employees in danger.
"It had just hit the point where we can't take this anymore," he told Coleman.
O’Brien has reported 22 life-threatening related close calls. In public records obtained by Channel 2, one firefighter reported a malfunctioning face piece obstructed his breathing, while another said, “I have no confidence in the equipment we are using."
The whole time, O'Brien said Draeger told them no other departments had similar issues.
"It's disheartening when a manufacturer comes in and says you and your personnel are the problem," O'Brien said.
But Channel 2's investigation found fire departments in Phoenix, Ariz., Vancouver, B.C., and Anchorage, Alaska, all had similar problems. Firefighters said mouth pieces were falling apart, cutting off air, along with other issues.
Coleman traveled to Phoenix, where the fire department uses more than twice as many of the packs as DeKalb. Public records show Phoenix firefighters reported at least 120 broken Draeger units last year.
"I started breathing black, heated smoke,” one firefighter wrote. “That's when I realized that my regulator was dislodged from my face piece."
Another firefighter wrote, "Suddenly, I was unable to breathe any air and my mask suctioned to my face."
Coleman showed the documents to O'Brien.
"Sounds very similar to us," he said.
Phoenix’s assistant fire chief agreed to discuss the issues Coleman, but just days before the interview, the city's legal department called it off, saying it was a "delicate situation."
In Anchorage documents, a fire captain wrote, "To date we've had 44 first-stage failures. This is a high percentage of failures for new apparatus.”
Coleman asked Draeger officials why DeKalb wasn’t told about the problems in other cities.
"What DeKalb has experienced with the regulators falling out, I believe, is unique. Now, are there other departments having issues with that exact same piece? Yes," Draeger's Vice President of Sales and Service Tim Martin said.
Draeger maintains that it is not a safety issue, but a maintenance issue.
Coleman: “Why would a firefighter not maintain his equipment properly if he is relying on it?”
Martin: "That's a good question. I don't feel equipped to answer that."
In March, the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control, officially opened an investigation into the Draeger air packs. Martin told Coleman they are cooperating.
"I don't believe that we've ever tried to hide anything from customers," he said.
He admitted the company could have done a better job communicating to all the departments about the issues.
Both Phoenix and DeKalb, two of Draeger’s largest departments, have decided they are going with a different manufacturer. Draeger recently secured a large contract with the city of Baltimore using the same air pack.
Draeger reaffirmed its confidence in its product in an email to Channel 2 saying, “Draeger fully supports the NIOSH investigation of our equipment, and we have absolute confidence that they will find it to be safe and compliant with all standards.
NIOSH has contacted the DeKalb Fire Department numerous times to request they send for inspection the equipment that allegedly malfunctioned in February, but DeKalb still has not done so to date.
Our SCBAs are used by over 1,500 fire departments in the U.S., and the issues raised in the investigation represent only a small fraction of the 1 million-plus devices in use all over the world.
The safety of Draeger breathing equipment is demonstrated every day by first responders, mine rescue teams, U.S. Navy SEALS, U.S. Army and others, and we would not want anyone to use it if we believed it to be unsafe.”