PETERSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — During an 8News investigation, we learned that firefighters in Petersburg believe their lives could be at risk because of aging equipment. Some claim the old gear has caused them injury.
The face mask and oxygen tank firefighters use when they enter a burning building is the only thing that allows them to breath in a building filled with smoke and flames.
Problem is, Petersburg firefighters say the masks they are using have malfunctioned, putting their lives in danger.
“If a firefighter gets trapped and he’s too deep in and he loses air, he may not be able to get out,” said a firefighter who wished to remain anonymous.
That is the fear of every firefighter—that fear only amplified in Petersburg with what firefighters believe is equipment that isn’t working properly.
“Right now the situation is in dire straits,” said Gene Beemer with the Professional Firefighters Association. “If you don’t have your equipment to fight fires with, you are not going to save lives.”
“Right now the situation is in dire straits.”
Beemer says the air packs are nearly 12 years old. The Petersburg Fire Chief agrees the equipment is getting old.
“Like everything, everything has a life span and these pieces are coming towards the end of their life span,” Petersburg Fire Chief T.C. Hairston told 8News.
According to the Virginia Department of Labor And Industry, it appears required testing to ensure the equipment is working properly is not being performed on schedule.
Just last month 8News uncovered Petersburg was slapped with a citation from Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Compliance. The citation labeled a “serious” violation for failing to perform what is known as a ‘ fit test.’
“It’s checking to make sure that you have a proper seal so that no hazardous materials get into the face piece, it’s also checking to make sure the valve is working properly so when you breathe in and out it’s working properly, it’s checking to make sure you can function with the face piece on,” Hairston explained.
Hairston said the tests were not performed on time because the department had received new equipment to replace the old. They tested that gear which was bought with grant money, but it was repossessed when the city failed to pay the bill with the grant money they still received.
“And it makes you realize that there is no care for the department, for the fire department,” the unidentified firefighter added.
He says the masks are old, but he believes they have been malfunctioning for years. According to him, he says his mask filled with smoke while he responded to a call back in 2007.
“You’re focus starts to fade out a little bit, your breathing increases and heart rate increases,” he explained.
“You’re focus starts to fade out a little bit, your breathing increases and heart rate increases.”
He was treated for smoke inhalation and filed an incident report with the chief at the time.
8News did some digging and found another incident involving the same air packs and the same reported problem. During a house fire in July of 2016, two veteran firefighters were hurt. Both reported their breathing device malfunctioned, causing smoke inhalation. One of the firefighters was taken to a nearby hospital.
The one common thread connecting all the injuries, according to the firefighters union, firefighters, and paper documentation, the masks were all Survivair masks. Survivair masks were also blamed for two firefighters deaths in a fire in St. Louis Missouri. Family members sued the company and won more than 30 million dollars, collectively.
Survivair and their parent company have been bought out several times since the lawsuit and since the date Petersburg purchased the gear.
Honeywell has since acquired the Survivair brand and, in a statement to 8News, stated the following:
“Survivair equipment is safe, proven technology that is fully certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The 2007 Martin lawsuit involved a tragic incident that took a firefighter’s life. However, our own and independent testing of the equipment involved confirmed that it had worked properly, as designed, under extreme conditions.” They also say “Ensuring that the Survivair equipment is properly serviced and maintained is the responsibility of fire departments.”
8News Reporter Parker Slaybaugh asked the new acting city manager in Petersburg where the grant money went for the repossessed fire gear. He said that is something he is still investigating, but says it is something he will resolve.
Honeywell says they were aware Petersburg had bought a competitors brand equipment with the FEMA grant, however they were unaware it had been repossessed. They are reaching out to the department to see if they can be of any assistance in servicing the gear.
As for other local fire departments, the only one around we found using Survivair gear is Richmond. Officials said they have had no problems, but replace them every 8 years. The fit test that the city received the citation for was finally performed earlier this month.
This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.