Is your equipment ready for the next terrorist attack?
As seen in USA Today ...
Firefighters question respirator safety
By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY
Most of the nation's 1 million firefighters, the public's first line of defense in an emergency, don't know whether the high-tech breathing equipment they use would protect them against the chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear material officials warn might be used in a terrorist attack.
Since January, the federal government's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been testing the respirators used by firefighters when they respond to any emergency that could cause them to inhale something toxic, such as smoke or chemical fumes.
So far, the government has certified the self-contained breathing devices made by only one company, which provides the devices to about 5%-10% of firefighters nationwide. It has failed those made by three others.
"We want to know if our masks work, because when the bell rings, we're going out the door," says recently retired firefighter John Eversole, who ran the Chicago fire department's hazardous materials unit for 12 years. "If we don't protect the emergency responders, then there's no one to protect the citizens. It's a big issue in the fire service — a significant concern."
The breathing devices are designed to protect emergency workers by providing 30 to 60 minutes of fresh air from a pressurized cylinder or tank carried on the back.
Eversole says he first started promoting government testing of the devices in 1995, after members of a religious cult released a deadly nerve gas called sarin into the Tokyo subway system. A dozen people were killed and 5,000 injured.
"That marked a significant change in the world of emergency preparedness," Eversole says. "It brought chemical warfare out of being a military matter and into being a civilian matter."
The military has long tested the respiratory equipment used by troops to see whether it would stand up to chemical warfare agents. But the military's equipment is specially designed for battlefield use; government contractors, not private manufacturers, design it to meet military specifications.
By contrast, the equipment used by firefighters had never been tested — until Sept. 11.
After that, the government developed standards for testing firefighters' equipment. It started taking applications for voluntary tests in January. Ten companies have applied for certification. Industry experts expect virtually all the companies that make the gear to eventually go through the testing process. The first, and so far only, company to pass, Connecticut-based Interspiro, got its stamp of approval in May.
The government won't release the names of the three companies that failed initial tests. Officials say the companies are working with them and with military scientists to improve their products so they will pass the tests.
Fire companies are not legally obligated to use federally approved equipment. But the certification, much like the American Dental Association seal of approval on toothpaste tubes, lets people know which products have been tested and approved as safe and effective.
"It would be really nice to know that we're protected," says Alan Caldwell of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Certification of its equipment hasn't sparked a business boom for Interspiro.
"We expected the floodgates would open," company president Mike Brookman says. "But it's been a deafening silence."
Fire service officials say there are two reasons: Some fire companies are waiting to see whether the equipment they already own will be certified. In addition, much of the $657 million in federal grant money set aside for first responders' training and equipment has yet to arrive from Washington.
In addition to testing self-contained breathing devices, which cost at least $2,000 each, the federal government has been lobbied by firefighters to start testing chemical-cartridge respirators. Worn on the face, they filter out chemicals for hours. But they do not provide nearly the protection of the self-contained devices. Federal officials say the agency is developing tests for those devices and plans to start testing next year.
An accident, Eversole says, might require a firefighter to be on the scene for only a short time. But in a terrorist attack, "we now know we might have whole neighborhoods to deal with."
Rich Metzler, acting director of the government's National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, says results for the self-contained breathing devices are slow in coming because nerve agents used in the tests — sarin and mustard gas — are dangerous and the tests are rigorous.
Eversole says he understands why the process takes so long. But, he says, "We've just been very lucky that we haven't killed a lot of firefighters in the meantime."