Calif. fire chief, union at odds over safety of SCBA

Monrovia bought the breathing equipment in 2009 along with 25 other departments in LA County; union said straps, PASS system had problems

By Nathan McIntire
The Pasadena Star—News

MONROVIA, Calif. — Fire department administrators and members of the firefighters' union are again clashing over a breathing device the rank and file believes is unsafe.

Firefighters in January began training with the new units — a tank and mask system that allows them to breathe oxygen when battling smoky fires — but the results were discouraging, union officials said.

"These units are already having safety issues," said Monrovia Firefighters President Dave Rapp. "If the firefighters aren't safe, then how can we possibly protect the public?"

Monrovia bought the equipment in May 2009 along with 25 other departments in Los Angeles County, as part of a federal program designed to update safety equipment countywide.

The union has opposed the purchase ever since.

But fire Chief Christopher Donovan insists the equipment, made by Sperian Fire, is perfectly safe and is already in use at other local departments.

"I would not advocate for an unsafe product — just like the chief of L.A. city, the chief of L.A. County and the chief of Arcadia would not advocate for an unsafe product," he said.

He noted that departments in Monterey Park and Alhambra are already using the device. "I'm comfortable with the product and look forward to putting it in service."

Bill Sokol, a spokesman for Sperian, did not return a call Thursday requesting comment.

Rapp said a new strap had to be installed on the apparatus because it was falling off during training exercises. Firefighters also had problems with it's alarm system, Rapp said.

That system, designed to sound and alert other firefighters if a colleague goes down, has been malfunctioning, he said.

"It's constantly activating, so what you tend to do is ignore it," Rapp said.

But Donovan said union officials are still upset over not being including in the selection process. Sperian's product was eventually chosen by the county but only after an extended court battle over the bidding process.

"There's some resistance to change and ultimately this is sour grapes because they didn't have a say in the decision-making process," the chief said.

The breathing apparatus were supposed to go into service at the beginning of the year. Rapp said problems with the device have delayed it's use.

But Donovan said he expects the equipment will be in use by mid-June.

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