By April Hunt
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — The company that makes DeKalb County firefighters' air packs has offered to overhaul every device the county has, but officials say the offer can't convince the county to keep using the gear, which has malfunctioned from the first day.
The air packs provide clean, compressed air for firefighters to breathe as they battle blazes. Draeger Safety executives met with fire Chief Edward O'Brien last week to discuss complaints about firefighter safety, including 22 "near misses" where the packs either malfunctioned or failed during their first 18 months of use. In a letter dated Friday, the firm agreed to do the overhaul that O'Brien requested.
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It also said it would help the county set up a maintenance and training program for the packs.
The fire chief and union officials both welcomed Draeger's offers — but only as a temporary fix until new air packs can be bought and put into use.
Draeger blames lack of maintenance for DeKalb having so many problems with the gear and expects the county to pay an undetermined amount for the company's labor and travel.
"Ultimately, the sustained success of this program is largely in the hands of DeKalb [Fire Department]," wrote Tim Martin, Draeger's vice president of safety and sales.
But what DeKalb wants in its hands, and on the backs of firefighters, is another brand of air pack. O'Brien called for meetings Monday with his top staff to figure out how the county will respond to Draeger's offer, but Richard Stogner, the county's chief executive officer, said the county is unlikely to agree to pay for additional maintenance the firm wants.
"This is the reassurance to personnel that we are taking steps to address these problems, but we know the confidence is just not there to keep using this company," O'Brien told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Today the Board of County Commissioners is expected to approve spending $2 million in Fire Department rainy day money to buy 330 new devices. The county will look at several manufacturers, but not Draeger, and could have new gear in use by summer.
The county also is reviewing whether it will take any legal action against Draeger to try to recoup some of the $2 million — money it feels forced to spend because of ongoing problems with the current devices. DeKalb bought the original Draeger packs in 2008 using a $1.87 million federal grant and expected the gear to last at least 10 years. It is the only major metro Atlanta department to use that brand.
Records released by the Fire Department show firefighters began having problems with the gear almost immediately after it was used in the field in 2009.
A fire captain wrote of an incident last fall in which his air pack failed during a house fire, which caused him to need treatment for smoke inhalation.
Those incidents scared more than just other firefighters, said Nathan Leota, president of DeKalb Professional Firefighters Local 1492.
"Even to family members, it's been big on their minds," Leota said. "It's a relief that the right thing is in motion now, so we can get this done and get on with our job."
The Pittsburgh company, meanwhile, continues to stand by its product. Martin, who could not be reached Monday, said last week that the 22 malfunctions DeKalb reported their equipment was high.
But he described those problems as an anomaly, noting that Draeger has more than 1 million of the packs in use worldwide without problems.
"The problems we're seeing with DeKalb do not appear to be typical," Martin said. "We know they are out there to save people's lives. We feel the same way."
STORY SO FAR
2008 --- DeKalb County wins grant to buy the new Draeger air packs, which provide clean, compressed air for firefighters to breathe while working in smoky, hot conditions during a fire.
April 2009 — Within the first month of use, some firefighters complain of malfunctions.
October 2011 — Fire Chief Edward O'Brien formally requests the county approve completely replacing the Draeger packs, noting 22 "near misses" where firefighters narrowly escaped severe injury when packs did not work as expected during fires.
December 2011 — Chief Executive Burrell Ellis' budget does not include the $2 million needed to buy all new air packs.
February 2012 — The County Commission's budget committee recommends using money from the department's rainy day fund for the purchase, a move expected to earn unanimous approval today.
Copyright 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution