.............Firefighters report problems with breathing devices
By Robert Patrick
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH | 2006, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Twelve St. Louis jurors deliberated last month on whether a safety device worn by city firefighter Rob Morrison malfunctioned and contributed to his death at a blaze in 2002, but they never finished. The manufacturer settled with Morrison's family for between $1 million and $5 million, ending the case.
Questions regarding the safety of Survivair brand equipment did not end.
The company has been named in two other suits by St. Louis firefighters or their families since 2003, echoing similar complaints heard around the country. One was filed by survivors of Derek Martin, a firefighter who died trying to save Morrison. Their lawyer plans to tell a jury that Martin's Survivair breathing equipment failed. Advertisement
Fire Chief Sherman George has ordered an examination of Survivair equipment. In a hand-delivered letter Wednesday, the president of the city firefighters union asked George and city officials to just replace it.
Internal company documents obtained by the Post-Dispatch suggest widespread concerns.
Survivair, a French-owned company based in California, is one of the smaller players making a self-contained breathing apparatus, known in the fire service as an SCBA, which allows a firefighters to operate in heavy smoke or toxic fumes. It delivers air from a tank on the wearer's back to a face mask. It also incorporates an alarm, known as a PASS device, which shrieks for help if the wearer pushes a button or becomes motionless.
The market is dominated by competing manufacturers Scott and MSA.
Some critics derisively refer to Survivair as "Surprise Air," a term that made it into the Morrison trial. Capt. Mike Ackman, of the Aurora, Colo. fire department, explained the term: "It's a surprise whether you're going to get air out of them or not."
But the issue in Aurora with the Survivair Sigma, an earlier version of the model used by St. Louis, was not safety but a "maintenance nightmare," Ackman said. His department switched to Scott in 1997. He said Survivair was "pretty fair" in taking its units back.
Stockton, Calif., firefighters had more serious complaints. In 1999, they got 95 Survivair Panther models, the same model St. Louis uses, and returned them in 2002. Asked why, then-Chief Gary Gillis said, "I'm not at liberty to speak about that."
In what was labeled a "compromise agreement," Stockton returned its SCBAs for $200,000 and an agreement of confidentiality about the arrangement. Neither Survivair nor its distributor, L.N. Curtis, admitted any liability.
But Stockton had to release the terms under California's open records law. Documents showed the department began to get complaints shortly after the Panthers arrived.
By early 2001, department members reported 96 problems with the masks and 102 with the rest of the devices. Almost one-fourth of the mask problems involved the exhalation valve. Several firefighters reported sticking valves that forced them to flee or inhale smoke. Three said the PASS unit "failed to operate" or "was not sensitive to motion."
One firefighter wrote, referring to the previous SCBAs: "We fully understand that these masks are here to stay but there isn't a man here that wouldn't take the MSAs back in a heartbeat." He said, "The newer masks are much less 'user-friendly,' and I see people at small fires breathing smoke rather than don their facepieces."
Another spoke of a "ridiculous failure rate."
Not everyone complained. Some personnel praised the comfort and weight of the Survivair equipment.
A representative of the distributor told the company it had received 206 complaints about Survivair gear through August 2001, according to the California documents. The next closest supplier had 30. He called Stockton a high-stress, low-maintenance environment.
An Aug. 9, 2001, letter to former Chief Gillis from Steven Weinstein, a project manager for Survivair, said, "In discussing this matter with other SCBA manufacturers, it is clear that everyone has been facing similar situations."
During the Morrison trial, Weinstein told jurors that there were "some real, some perceived" problems in Stockton.
In 2001, Gillis took the Panthers out of service and told his crews to use their old SCBAs. At a meeting three days later, fire officials accused Survivair of supplying prototypes and using Stockton as a test site, according to meeting notes. The city manager accused the company of knowingly sending defective products. Gillis told the company that firefighters were "demanding action and were ready to storm city hall."
The company denied that the units were defective or any different from those sold to other departments. The settlement was reached in 2002.
Back in St. Louis, Chief George said he was not aware of the problems in Aurora or Stockton until informed by the Post-Dispatch last week.
Dan Finney Jr., a lawyer for Morrison's widow and children, told jurors that water leaked into the electronics compartment of Survivair's PASS, causing it to fail when Morrison became incapacitated and thus preventing others from finding him until it was too late. Finney suggested the manufacturer did not tell customers about the potential for leaks out of fear of hurting sales.
Morrison suffered fatal injuries fighting a May 3, 2002, fire in a commercial building on Gravois Avenue. Martin, a fellow member of Rescue Squad 1, was fatally injured searching for him.
Lynn Hursh, a lawyer for Survivair, told jurors the PASS device was designed so that if water got in, it would only turn itself on, cycle on and off, or sound constantly until the battery was removed.
Hursh and Survivair employees told jurors that PASS devices made before 2004 did allow water to enter the electronics compartment. Engineers and executives knew about the leaks at least as early as 1999 and struggled to fix the problem for years.
Survivair's Weinstein told jurors that customers were "informally told" that water might get in, but that formal notice wasn't issued.
During the period in which leak problems were being investigated, however, Survivair told customers something different. Brochures dated 1998 and 2000 said that the electronics compartment and battery compartment of the PASS were "water-tight to 1 meter minimum."
Firefighters also were told to clean the devices by washing and rinsing them under running water.
After the settlement was announced last month, jurors seemed far from agreeing on a verdict. They said they were split on the responsibility for Morrison's death, but at least half reported feeling the PASS device had problems. Some said that they believed Morrison might have shared in the responsibility for his own death. Some witnesses reported hearing a low air alarm, and Hursh suggested that Morrison should have left the building before he got into trouble.
"That's the part that bothers me the most," widow Laura Morrison said about Hursh's statements. "He never mentioned that they were having problems with the SCBAs and that could have been the cause" of her husband's collapse.
She insisted that Morrison did not contribute to his own death in any way. "His last lifeline failed him."
She called on the department to replace its Survivair gear.
At least one other St. Louis firefighter reported a Survivair PASS problem. After a fire in 2000, Ben Halbert said his failed in the "on position" and nothing could be done to activate it. A notation on his complaint says the PASS was fixed by department technicians but doesn't say how.
Battalion Chief Clay Fenwick of Sugar Land, Texas, said the fire department traded in Survivair gear for new Scott SCBAs after a series of problems, including face piece cracks and problems with the PASS devices alarming when they shouldn't.
"People were being lax. When the PASS alarms would go off, they would ignore them. They would think it's another malfunction," he said. "Kind of like the car alarms going off in the parking lot - no one pays any attention."
Complaints in St. Louis
Other problems with the Survivair SCBAs were reported by St. Louis firefighters in documents a reporter obtained under Missouri's open records law.
After a 2000 blaze, two firefighters said their low-air bells didn't ring and that the first-stage regulators on their air packs froze. Technicians could not duplicate the failures back in the department repair shop.
Complaints about valves sticking, or difficulty breathing, were received in 2001 and 2002. Several firefighters complained of regulator leaks. On several complaint forms, Chief George appears to have written notes asking for a report or investigation.
Survivair settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount when St. Louis firefighter Don Winkler sued over permanent lung damage in 2001 that forced him to retire from the department.
In an interview, Winkler said that on Mother's Day 2001, he and his partner were searching for victims at a dwelling fire when his mask sucked tight against his face, meaning there was no longer air coming from his tank. He said he tried to use a bypass valve that lets air flow freely around the regulator, but it didn't work. He eventually put his finger between his mask and his face to take a breath, letting in hot gases and smoke along with some air.
Winkler said that as he crawled for the door and gasped for air, "It was like drowning, but I was breathing. You're breathing, but it's not doing anything."
An expert for the plaintiff blamed ice crystals forming in the regulator. Survivair denied there was a malfunction, claiming Winkler must have turned his air off by mistake.
A jury had already been picked for the trial, but Survivair settled in December after it failed to get a judge to block Finney from calling for testimony of firefighters from St. Louis; Snake River, Colo.; North Little Rock, Ark.; and Ontario, Canada, according to court documents.
A lawsuit filed by Derek Martin's widow, Angela, and three children says that if Rob Morrison's PASS device had not failed, Martin would never have been in harm's way looking for him. It also claims that the exhalation valve on Martin's Survivair mask failed and prevented him from breathing.
Jerome Schlicter, one of the family's lawyers, declined to comment, other than to say, "We fully expect these allegations to be proven clearly at trial."
Survivair has denied the claims in court documents. After the Morrison trial, Hursh, the Survivair lawyer, said he was limited in what he could say because of the pending Martin suit.
Rock Community Fire Protection District in Arnold and the Kirkwood Fire Department, as well as the Community Fire Protection District in Overland, also use Survivair gear. Fire officials there said they did not have major problems with it.
Kirkwood's acting chief, Larry Bierman, said, "In all honesty, we haven't had that many problems. They've been relatively very functional units for us."
Rich Duffy, who is responsible for occupational health and safety issues for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the union does not keep statistics on equipment complaints, though it does forward any concerns it gets to government regulators.
Anecdotally, Duffy said, no one company seems to have more complaints than any other. He also noted that departments have gotten rid of SCBAs made by other companies too.
Duffy said that confidential settlements make it difficult to determine whether problems are widespread. A lot of cases have gag orders or are sealed, he said.
The SCBA "is a major piece of safety equipment," Duffy emphasized. "Regardless of whether it's actual problems or perceived problems, if you don't trust your breathing equipment, you're in big trouble."
He said that firefighters must trust their SCBAs with their lives and will naturally balk if they're not confident with they have.
The St. Louis firefighters union president, Paul Davis, who attended part of one day of the trial, said he was most disturbed to hear that Survivair did not formally notify departments of potential PASS leaks.
"The men and women on the fire department and our families need to know that the equipment . . . will protect us," he said. Davis said he has not personally experienced problems with his SCBA or PASS.
If followed, the union's call to replace Survivair units in St. Louis could be expensive.
The original order cost about $826,000, with thousands more spent later for parts and upgrades.
During the testing and evaluation that led up to that purchase, Survivair and Scott were "in a dead heat" in the numerical rankings filled out by the more than 60 firefighter testers, according to a firefighter involved in the selection. He insisted on anonymity out of fear of being disciplined for speaking publicly.
MSA also was included in the process because the department was already using its equipment.
Scott came out on top in a firefighters straw poll, the source said. But when the bids came in, Scott's bid was about $580,000 higher, he said, so the department went with the Survivair Panthers.
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10-04-2006, 04:14 PM #1
St. Louis FD/Survivair Lawsuit/LODD Widow
Last edited by SFDredhat126; 10-04-2006 at 04:17 PM.
10-04-2006, 04:16 PM #2
A flicker of doubt
Every day, firefighters face huge, uncontrollable risks while trying to rescue people and property; their equipment shouldn't be one of them.
If a firefighter's air pack fails in a smoke-filled building, he dies. For that stark reason, the St. Louis Fire Department immediately should replace the Survivair packs it provides roughly 700 men and women.
As reported Sunday by Robert Patrick of the Post-Dispatch, there is troubling evidence that the Survivair packs used by the city and several suburban deparments are unreliable. Indeed, they already may have caused or contributed to the deaths of two St. Louis firemen in 2002.
This device is so vital that there can be no tolerance of failure. It consists of an air tank that rests on the firefighter's back, connected by tubes and valves to a face mask. The devices also contain an alarm that sounds when the air supply is running low, as well as an emergency alarm that the firefighter can trigger to call for help. The alarm also sounds if the person wearing the air pack stops moving.
In a burning building filled with toxic smoke where visibility is nil, functional air packs are the difference between life and death.
As Mr. Patrick reported, Survivair last month agreed to pay between $1 million and $5 million to the family of Rob Morrison, a St. Louis firefighter who died in 2002 when he collapsed inside a burning commercial building and fellow firefighters had trouble finding him. His family claimed his alarm failed to sound, and they sued Survivair. Another firefighter, Derek Martin, died trying to rescue Mr. Morrison. Mr. Martin's family also is suing Survivair; the family's lawyer claims that Mr. Martin's air pack failed, too.
A third St. Louis firefighter, Don Winkler, settled a suit against Survivair after he claimed that his air pack was faulty and cut off his air supply as he searched a burning building in 2001. He breathed toxic gas while fleeing the building and suffered permanent lung damage. Several other St. Louis firefighters have complained about stuck valves, failed low-air alarms and broken air regulators.
Complaints against Survivair have cropped up in other states, as well. The Stockton, Calif., fire department experienced so many problems with its Survivair packs that it forced the manufacturer to take them back. In Colorado, Capt. Mike Ackman of the Aurora fire department called the devices "surprise air," because firefighters using the packs are surprised when they work. His department tried using Survivair packs but got rid of them because they were a "maintenance nightmare," the captain said.
Despite all this, St. Louis Fire Chief Sherman George says he has "no evidence" to indicate the Survivair packs are faulty. He says he has talked to fire officials in Los Angeles city and county, and they are satisfied with Survivair. But the chief says he's still investigating.
The Morrisons filed their suit against Survivair in late 2004. If nothing else, that should have put Chief George on notice that there could be a problem with the company's product. Any investigation should have been completed long before now.
As always, there is money involved. The city paid $826,000 for its original order for 384 Survivair devices in 1998. A rival manufacturer's bid was about $580,000 higher.
There are few purchasing decisions that are a matter of life and death. This is one of them. When the city sends men and women into burning buildings, it owes them the best equipment. The case against Survivair may not be definitive, and the company has denied liability in court documents. But there is enough evidence to raise serious doubt about the reliability of its air packs. Given the stakes, even a flicker of doubt is too much
10-04-2006, 04:43 PM #3
- Join Date
- Mar 2006
I don't think anythning else needs to be said about these scba's.
Have a safe one. (buy a Scott or MSA !)
10-05-2006, 09:49 AM #4Originally Posted by acado64"This thread is being closed as it is off-topic and not related to the fire industry." - Isn't that what the Off Duty forum was for?
10-05-2006, 12:55 PM #5
- Join Date
- Mar 2006
Yes I haveOriginally Posted by Bones42
Have a safe one.
10-05-2006, 03:38 PM #6
Always thought the MSA's were comfortable to wear, but never liked the masks.
10-06-2006, 09:27 AM #7
I have used Scott, MSA, Dreager, and Survivair.
Survivair is by far my least favorite. I've experinced alot of problems with them. Thankfully, never in a situation where I was in serious trouble.
10-06-2006, 09:46 AM #8
Originally Posted by Bones42
- Join Date
- Dec 2000
I doubt that these are enough fire calls that require hard use of SCBA's that you can say the survivair is better. St Louis reponds to over 100K calls a year and I know they see fire. I would say that along with San Antonio and a few other dept's they could be an authoritative voice on what SCBA's work and what don't.
To say you downgraded to Scotts is a bold statement. I have used Both Scott and MSA and would take either one over Survivair based on the facts from dept's that use them on a regular basis.
I could be wrong
Last edited by ehs7554; 10-06-2006 at 10:02 AM.
10-06-2006, 11:41 AM #9
I have yet to talk to some one who works here that likes Survivair. The head line for the article that started this thread in the "St. Louis Post Dispatch" was titled "Suprise Air"...that is what most guys on the job call them here.
The crew that works on them from my shift claim that after one good fire...they have at least one SCBA turned in for repairs.
10-06-2006, 12:27 PM #10
ehs7554, your link is to the Point Pleasant Fire Department, not the Point Pleasant Beach Fire Department. Close, but not quite. And yes, I am a member, have been for 24 years.
I have used Scott's for about 15 of those years, then we switched to the Survivair's and then this past year, went back to Scott's. You don't like my opinion, that's fine. I'm not telling you what to wear and/or not to wear.
Our old Scott's, 2a's and such, were fine - although heavy. We went looking for new SCBA and tried a few different types. Our decision was to go with the Survivair's because they were more comfortable and worked well for us. Being as they are not common in our area, the Department decided to switch back to Scott's to be more compatible. (Notice - we went for compatibility, not the best pack). In those years with the Survivairs, we have 1 unit go out of service. All the rest performed well and passed their flow testing regularly. I can't say the same for Scott's in my sister company during the same time period. It's been less than a year since we got rid of our Survivair's and went to Scott AP50's. I have had 4 belt mounts break, 2 packs out of service for low air flows. Guys don't like the fit, they don't like the constantly "loosening" up of the bottle strap to keep it from rocking. My mask gives me a seal, until I sweat a little bit, then it's lost. Yes, I have tried different size masks and have tried the 4/5 strap spider over the netting, nothing is anywhere near as good as the seal I got with my Survivair mask. I have no idea why Scott would stick with a regulator mounting scheme that requires you to line the regulator up with the mask correctly, twist it, and then do the opposite to dismount. Survivair was simple, just push it on.
I have no doubt that many many people are happy with their Scott's. I have no doubt there are many people happy with their Survivairs also. My company preferred the Survivairs. We considered it a step down to the Scott's. You don't agree. That's fine.
I don't base my thoughts on equipment from what other people tell me. I listen to them, but I try the stuff myself whenever possible.
And thanks for telling me that my call volume doesn't qualify me to decide whats best for me. Just wondering, do you do everything the FDNY way because they run more calls than just about everyone else? PS - there are a lot of large departments in CA that use the Survivairs, should I be ignoring them since they don't use Scott's?
10-07-2006, 12:27 AM #11
Originally Posted by Bones42
- Join Date
- Dec 2000
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