New oxygen gear will help Fort Lauderdale firefighters

By Shannon O'Boye
Staff Writer
Posted May 16 2003

Fort Lauderdale One of the first calls Battalion Chief Manny Catani responded to in 1974 was a foam mattress fire that had filled an apartment with nasty black smoke and toxic gases.

A few minutes after his team doused the blaze, he heard a voice that he thought sounded strange because it wasn't muffled.

"I turned around and there was [Captain Vance] Skidmore, talking and smoking a cigarette in this smoke filled room" without so much as a mask, Catani said.

During his fire training in the mid-1970s, Catani's instructors lectured about the importance of wearing a mask and an oxygen container, but his captain "was from the old school where those guys sucked it up, went in and knocked the fire down with no protection at all."

The days of "smoke eating" by firefighters are largely gone. The Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue department's new, cutting-edge Air-Paks are proof of that.

The newest feature on the Air-Paks is a safety device that starts working as soon as the oxygen bottle is turned on. If a firefighter does not move for 30 seconds, a piercing alarm will sound both inside the burning building and outside the building on a computer held by the chief as an alert that there may be trouble.

The chief will know to send in a rescue team to save a firefighter who has fallen, gotten trapped or been knocked unconscious, said Fire Rescue Division Chief Stephen McInerny.

The new devices, called Scott Electronic Management Systems, or "SEMS," also give firefighters digital read-outs of how much air they have left and allow them to send messages outside if they run into trouble and need to evacuate. Likewise, commanders outside the fire can issue an evacuation alert through the SEMS, know when the firefighters turn on their Air-Paks and monitor their oxygen flow.

Fort Lauderdale firefighters have been wearing some sort of safety device since 1990, but the previous models have been clip-ons that firefighters had to turn on manually. That's something firefighters sometimes forgot to do as they hurried to grab their tools, pull a hose and get water on a fire, McInerny said.

The SEMS technology is brand new, and Fort Lauderdale was the first fire department in the country to start using it, said John Skaryak, of Scott Health & Safety. Sunrise Fire Rescue ordered the units shortly after Fort Lauderdale.

The SEMS cost $1,495, which is added to the $3,500 cost of the Air-Pak, but McInerny said it was not difficult to convince the City Commission that the fire department needed the equipment. The city spent almost $500,000 on the Paks and the SEMS.

Battalion Chief Guy Gallo recalled when he first came on the job in 1974 that if a firefighter got into trouble he would have to take his mask off -- if he was wearing one -- start yelling, and pray someone heard or found him.

A push for change started in 1980 after a Miami-Dade fire lieutenant got lost in a garbage-strewn warehouse that was burning. The firefighter ran out of air and died. Still, the idea of firefighter safety and health didn't get serious attention until the 1990s, McInerny said.

Today, every firefighter carries a radio, in addition to the SEMS, so if the alarm sounds on the chief's computer outside the building, the chief can call the firefighter to see what's happening.

No response would expedite a rescue attempt.

"The key to all of this is we will know as quickly as possible when someone is in trouble," McInerny said. "So we can be proactive instead of reactive. We've gained some valuable time with these devices."

Shannon O'Boye can be reached at or 954-356-4597.