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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

The last Bridgeport firefighter who died in action, Walter Flyntz on March 17, 1999, died of a heart attack.

Baik’s cause of death was listed as a combination of smoke inhalation and coronary atherosclerosis. This is better known as a heart attack, when the arteries supplying blood to the heart muscles become clogged with a waxy buildup of cholesterol and other fatty substances.

Coronary atherosclerosis is the most common type of heart disease.

Contrary to a widely held belief, the air tanks used by firefighters, mine rescue workers and other responders aren’t “oxygen tanks,” because they aren’t designed to hold pure oxygen. Instead, they hold compressed, purified atmospheric air, which is 78 percent nitrogen, 20 percent oxygen and almost 1 percent argon.

The vast majority of fire departments in the United States, and many other fire departments around the world, use what has become known as the Scott Air-Pak SCBA.

The unit consists of a carbon fiber air tank, pressurized to 4,500 pounds per square inch, that is connected to a face mask The tank comes in three sizes — 30, 45, and 60, referring to the approximate number of minutes of air the firefighter has before it runs out. The minute rating is only a guideline.

“Each firefighter learns his own duty cycle,” said a Scott sales agent who didn’t want his name used in this story. “If he’s a heavy breather, he’ll run out of air sooner,” he said.

“I can assure you, that without knowing what happened, that the Paks wouldn’t be suspect,” he added.

He said that the ones in use by just about all fire departments have multiple alarm systems to warn the users when there is about 15 minutes of air left in the tank. The redundant alarms includes a device that vibrates the air mask, and a loud bell and lights to notify others that a firefighter could be in trouble.

They are manufactured by Scott Health & Safety, a division of Tyco International, in five locations worldwide. They have been in use, in various versions, since prior to World War II and have been continually improved over the years. A new Scott Air-Pak sells for about $6,500. The tanks are recharged at the station house; ladder trucks are also equipped with tank rechargers.

Units are designed to withstand extremely high temperatures, and this, combined with their multiple safety features, contributes to the high cost. Although they resemble scuba gear in many respects, they aren’t designed for underwater use.

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