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Air Packs Under Scrutiny in Probe of Firefighters' Deaths

Air Packs Under Scrutiny in Probe of Firefighters' Deaths

Lt. Steven Velasquez (left) and Firefighter Michel Baik (right) (Photo: Bridgeport Fire Department)

Connecticut Post via YellowBrix

July 27, 2010

FAIRFIELD, CT — Dennis Eannotti arrives at the firehouse on Reef Road to start his shift. The first thing he does is go over to the rack and his turnout gear — hat, pants and coat.

He looks them over for any rips or tears and then goes to the truck he’s assigned to, picks up the gear of the firefighter he’s relieving and brings it back to the rack. He swaps out the batteries in his radio and changes the radio number on his “activity tag,” a way of keeping track where everyone is in the chaos of an incident.

Next, he starts to check his air pack.

“Obviously, this is one of the most vital things,” Eannotti said.

Firefighters’ breathing equipment has come under scrutiny as state investigators examine the circumstances of how two Bridgeport firefighters, Lt. Steven Velasquez and Michel Baik, died in a house fire at 41 Elmwood Ave. Saturday.

Smoke inhalation has been ruled the cause of death for the 49-year-old Baik. The state medical examiner’s office also determined he had coronary artery disease that contributed to his death. A preliminary autopsy on the 40-year-old Velasquez was inconclusive, so more tests will be conducted.

Requests to the Bridgeport Fire Department for a review of equipment protocols were declined Monday, but the Fairfield department offered a review of its procedures, stressing that while the process is similar in all departments it is not precisely the same.

“You make sure all your seals are good, that your regulator is good, that there are no tears in the hood,” Eannotti said. “You check the bottle to make sure there’s enough air.”

He puts the air pack, also called the self-contained breathing apparatus, which includes the mask and the bottle of compressed air, on the floor of the station house, checking the bottle and the gauge to make sure the readings are the same.

“We have personnel that takes care of SCBA,” Eannotti said. “They’re very meticulous.”

Eannotti presses a button, the “pass device” that sets off an alarm, used to alert other firefighters if he gets into trouble. “You want to make sure the alarm is working properly in case you go down in a fire,” he said. “It’s pretty loud.”

Another alarm sounds as he leaves the air pack on the ground. “If the pack stops moving, the alarm goes off,” Eannotti said. There’s also a piercing alarm that sounds when the pack is running low on air. There is about 30 to 45 minutes of air in the bottle, depending on the activity in which the firefighter is engaged.

He checks the regulator’s bypass valve and purge valve.

“At that point, what I like to do is put the mask on, take a couple of breaths and make sure I have a good seal,” Eannotti said.

Then, he’ll shut the air pack down and use the air that’s left. That’s when the SCBA regulator starts to vibrate, another safety factor to alert the firefighter to a malfunction or low air.

If everything is in good working order, Eannotti said, he loads it back into the truck, and checks the oxygen tank levels in the truck’s EMS kit. If he’s driving the truck, Eannotti takes a checklist and begins to survey the truck itself. Is any equipment missing? Are the lights working?

“It definitely becomes a routine,” the seven-year department veteran said.

And while individual aspects may vary from department to department, the routine is essentially the same in firehouses across the country, Asst. Chief Christopher Tracy said.

“It’s a standard of the industry,” he said.

By far the leading cause of death for firefighters who die in the line of duty is heart attacks, according to a decade-long study by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Between 1990 and 2000, cardiac arrest and heart attack accounted for 43.9 percent of the 1,085 firefighters who died in the line of duty. The next-leading cause of death was listed as trauma, or severe injury, in which 27 percent of firefighters lose their lives. Asphyxiation claimed 11.3 percent of the firefighters in the study, and burns claimed 4.5 percent.