By April Hunt
ATLANTA — DeKalb County firefighters would literally breathe easier if the County Commission next week follows through on a committee recommendation to buy new firefighter gear.
The commission budget committee, hashing out what it will recommend for a 2012 budget later this week, agreed Tuesday that it will call for spending $2 million of fire department reserves to buy 330 new air packs for the entire department's shift needs. More than half of the current packs, which provide oxygen to firefighters as they battle blazes, have been malfunctioning and outright failing.
The most recent failure happened Saturday, when a pack cut oxygen to a firefighter inside a burning house fire, leaving him exposed to overheated air until he could rush outside, said Nathan Leota, president of the DeKalb Professional Firefighters Local No. 1492.
"That's what we call a near miss, where there was the potential for serious injury or worse that was somehow averted," Leota said.
Fire Chief Edward O'Brien told the commission's budget committee this month that the air packs have been failing at a rate of at least once a month. There were 22 "near misses" in the first year after the gear came online in 2009. One pack failed in January. Three failed last weekend.
O'Brien thinks there is a problem with the Drager air packs and met with a company executive Tuesday to discuss concerns. The company has said in statements that it has no other reports of similar problems.
Chief Executive Burrell Ellis did not include funding for the new packs in his original $547 million proposed budget. A revised $559 million proposal issued last week also does not include specific funding but pledges to do research on how to phase in new gear.
Commissioners on the budget panel rejected a phase-in, saying it was a matter of public safety.
"There are times you do a lot of research, but when the fire chief tells you this is what he needs to protect his men, you act," said Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton.
This was the first session to hash out the committee's spending recommendations for 2012. The committee will continue that work Thursday and will make its formal recommended budget then.
Copyright 2012 Atlanta Journal-Constitution