The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Protect those in fire’s path

Kathlyn Hotynski

The Pensacola Fire Department in Florida took a blow to its staff in November 2000. Maurice Bartholomew lost his life when he became trapped fighting a house fire.

March 2002 – a Jefferson City, Tennessee, firefighter also became trapped and died in a burning home. He was 5 feet from the door.

May 2002 – St. Louis firefighter Rob Morrison was injured and became incapacitated while battling a blaze in a refrigeration plant. Firefighter Derek Martin searched for Morrison, but got lost in the building. Both men died.

Eleven other firefighters, according to an investigation, fell in the line of duty due to the failure of a device designed to help firefighters when they are the ones needing to be rescued.

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The Personal Alert Safety System is an instrument firefighters use to alert their comrades that they are incapable of exiting the building on their own due to injury or other incapacitating reasons.

When a firefighter has stopped moving for more than 30 seconds, the PASS system sets off an hour-long, 95 decibel shrill intended to be heard over the chaotic sounds at a fire scene. The system also incorporates a visual strobe to alert nearby fire personnel.

In February 2000, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention told one of their fire safety engineers to “minimize fact gathering” in his investigation of firefighter deaths, according to the investigation.

Eric Schmidt believed that a growing number of firefighter fatalities were the result of the PASS system failing.

In fact in April 2005, long after Schmidt was fired from his position at the CDC in June 2000, the agency conducted a series of tests on PASS alert systems according to the investigation.

These tests showed that the volume of the PASS’ signal was significantly lower when subjected to temperatures of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the Red Cross, fires generally reach these temperatures in rooms adjacent to the actual fire where temperatures may reach up to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The tests also showed that some PASS systems were prone to water leaking into the electronic compartment causing the system to malfunction.

The investigation stated that nearly all six of the PASS alarm brands available fail the temperature test and half of those fail the water test.

In a report released by the National Fire Prevention Association last month, new standards for PASS system evaluation have been enacted, however, these standards are not strict enough.

Under the new regulations, PASS systems are subject to a high temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, while most of the temperature testing will be done at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. This is nowhere close to the nearly 1,000-degree temperatures firefighters face when confronting the flames face-to-face.

An even more disappointing aspect of these “stricter” regulations is devices that pass the tests will not be available to the market for months to come, according to the MSNBC investigation.

After the release of the investigation last month, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., requested a full-scale investigation be undertaken by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I write regarding an investigative report airing on MSNBC that accuses officials with the CDC of blocking an investigation into the deaths of six firefighters whose personal safety equipment failed between 1998 and 2000 and failing to take action until nine more firefighters died under similar circumstances,” Kerry wrote in his letter to the Health and Human Services Inspector General, Daniel Levinson.

“These allegations are deeply troubling and should be followed up immediately with a federal investigation.”

A full-scale investigation on the federal level does need to be carried out. We need to make sure that those who brushed this matter under the rug saying that the PASS issues are trivial when determining the cause of death within a fire, are held accountable for their actions. This problem needs to be solved.

Congress needs to pass legislation to impose stricter standards and regulations to the development of PASS alert systems. These systems need to withstand environments equal to or greater than the worst situations a firefighter might encounter.

It is not fair that the public expects the firefighters in their city or town to answer the call when the firefighters themselves know their only line of defense should a problem arise also becomes a problem.

Firefighting is a dangerous job. We owe it to America’s bravest to make sure that they are able to have fully functional safety-equipment to help them in their time of need while they help us in our time of need.

Dostalek is a junior print journalism major and news editor of The Spectator.

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Protect those in fire’s path