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NIOSH: SCBA alarm failed in Conn. firefighter death

The NIOSH investigation showed that only the first of the two low-air alarms functioned in its test

By Dave Altimari and Steven Goode
The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — One of the alarms that should have warned Hartford firefighter Kevin Bell that his air tank was running out of air was not working properly when he died fighting a fire in October, the federal government has concluded.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health inspected two tanks, which fire professionals refer to as “cylinders,” after the Oct. 7 fire on Blue Hill Avenue. The Courant obtained the report Friday. The identity of the other firefighter whose cylinder was inspected was not immediately clear.

The office of the chief state medical examiner previously ruled Bell died because his cylinder ran out of air. Neither cylinder had air in it when they arrived at NIOSH, the report indicates.

The 20-page report raises questions about the conditions of the 10-year-old breathing apparatus the men wore that night. Among the conclusions:

--Bell’s breathing apparatus failed the “remaining service life indicator” test. Bell’s cylinder had two alarm systems on it and while the first one worked, the second alarm, which would have gone off when he had about 20-25 percent of his air left, did not pass the federal tests.

--Bell’s four-year-old air pack was in fair condition overall although there were numerous scratches and gouge repairs on the cylinder and parts of it were dirty.

--The air cylinder worn by the second firefighter had not been tested in the past five years as required by federal laws. Bell’s air cylinder had been pressure tested in April of 2013.

--The second breathing apparatus did not meet NIOSH’s pressure tests because it “did not maintain positive pressure” throughout the 30-minute testing period.

NIOSH said the probe of the breathing apparatus has concluded and “in light of the information obtained during this investigation, NIOSH has proposed no further action at this time.” NIOSH is still investigating the circumstances of fatal fire and how the department responded.

The two units were returned to the fire department but cannot be put back into service until they are “repaired, tested, cleaned, and any damaged components replaced and inspected by a qualified service technician.”

Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner, had ruled Bell’s death an accident caused by lack of “breathing gas.” The death certificate states that Bell’s self-contained breathing apparatus ran out of air while he was fighting the fire. It also lists cardiac hypertrophy as a contributing factor in his death.

Bell, 48, was killed in a house fire at 598 Blue Hills Ave., becoming the first city firefighter in 40 years to die in the line of duty. Firefighter Jason Martinez was also badly burned in the fire and leapt from a second floor window to escape the flames.

Bell, a six-year veteran of the department assigned to Engine 16 at 636 Blue Hills Ave., was in the house for less than 12 minutes before another member of the department called a mayday, according to radio transmissions,

He was discovered missing after all the firefighters were ordered out of the building for a head count and was unaccounted for in the house for more than eight minutes, records show.

When it was discovered that Bell was missing, a team from Tactical Unit 1 was sent back into the burning house and found him in less than 30 seconds. Bell was found in a room on the second floor to the right of the staircase.

Bell had been in the house for a total of less than 21 minutes, according to records. A cylinder is rated for 30 minutes of air, but there are a variety of factors that go into how long a firefighter’s air bottle lasts, including level of exertion or how much air is taken in with each breath.

Bell was responsible for carrying a hose up to the second floor and putting water on the fire.

In the aftermath of his death, the state fire marshal’s office, Conn-OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health began investigations, and the breathing apparatus that Bell was wearing was sent to its manufacturer for testing.

Two days before Bell’s death, an internal fire department email revealed that an inspection of his engine company’s equipment found numerous safety issues, including empty cylinders.

The medical examiner’s office did not issue a cause of death or toxicology report initially because of the question about the breathing apparatus.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the state fire marshal’s office.


(c)2015 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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