March 05-- Nearly all of the more than 400 breathing apparatuses used by the Tulsa Fire Department have been dismantled, examined and had parts replaced since a firefighter's apparatus apparently malfunctioned in late 2011.
Fire officials said the aging equipment is approaching the end of its life, and the fixes made in the last year will buy the department some time until new models are released and money is saved to buy them.
Chief of Physical Resources Mike Mallory said about 15 of the remaining apparatuses still need to be inspected, a process that began about a year ago.
"We basically take it down to the bare bones," Mallory said.
Firefighter James O'Neal was pulled out of a burning home unconscious on Dec. 31, 2011, after it appeared his mask had filled with smoke. He spent weeks in the hospital recovering and has since returned to work.
His equipment was immediately sequestered and sent off to a national agency for inspection, Mallory said. However, no definitive cause was found.
"We really don't know exactly what happened," Mallory said. "The best we got is speculation, potential explanations."
Out of an abundance of caution, the department decided to bring in every self-contained breathing apparatus, take it completely apart, replace certain parts and clean the device, then reassemble it after further testing and inspections, Mallory said.
"We did not find any failure or problem with them," Mallory said. "But what we did find were some other issues that had not been addressed. It led us to improve, do a little quality assurance."
The self-contained breathing apparatus -- which includes the air tank, hoses, masks and valves -- has several tiny parts that can break or crack and get clogged if not properly cleaned and maintained, Mallory said.
It would be impossible for firefighters to go into burning buildings without that equipment, he said.
"Without it, you are going to die in that environment," Mallory said.
What would normally be a three- to four-month exercise of simply cleaning the apparatuses became an intensive yearlong process that cost the department about $100,000, Capt. Stan May said.
May said the department felt that it was worth the cost to ensure the equipment was working properly and to extend its life until new equipment can be purchased, at a cost that would exceed $1 million, he said.
"All those repairs were a direct result of not being able to pinpoint an exact reason," May said. "We had that on our long-term goal was to replace them."
Most of the breathing apparatus equipment was made in 1999. Specifically the air tanks, which have a 15-year life span, are needing to be replaced soon, Mallory said.
"That's what really pushing us," Mallory said. "We know the cylinders work, but when it dies, it dies.
"We would like to change the whole (breathing apparatus), and it would be a great time to do it."
The companies that manufacture the equipment are waiting for new standards to be released from the National Fire Protection Association later this year.
Mallory said it is difficult to estimate a cost for new equipment until the manufacturers release their new models.
Until a decision on new equipment is made, Mallory said the maintenance crews will keep a close eye on the equipment to catch any problem before it occurs.
Jerry Wofford 918-581-8310
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