Chief Charles Burger said the grant will purchase 28 new airpacks, replacing the 11-year-old ones the department currently uses.
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — The Fire Department is replacing its 11-year-old airpacks with more modern and safer ones.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal announced a $160,477 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to purchase the 28 new units. The packs are used more than two dozen times a year to help firefighters breathe in hazardous conditions.
"This grant is going toward replacing our self-contained breathing apparatus, or what most people know them as airpacks. They are the cylinders we wear on our backs in order to breath clean air in a hazardous environment. Ours are old. The manufacturer is out of business and ours have major, major issues. There is nothing more important for firefighter safety than having our equipment work," Fire Chief Charles Burger said.
The new masks will go in operation in about three months — after the order is filled and firefighters trained — and are significantly improved over the current ones. The current ones aren't built to handle the amount of energy fires can generate and there have been cases elsewhere when a mask has melted, causing serious injury. The new masks are built to a higher standard to withstand hotter fires.
Burger said radio communication will also be improved because the new ones allow for better acoustics whereas the old ones muffled the radio sounds.
Further, the equipment is easier to maintain. Currently, the masks need to be disassembled to be cleaned after usage, which has led to plastic being broken and needing to be fixed. If the packs aren't assembled exactly right, they won't work, Burger said. For example, if there is any water in the area where carbon monoxide is vented, it will create a seal that restricts the airflow. The same goes for other parts of the mask.
"One of the main issues we have with all old models is that the face pieces fog over as soon as you turn them on. These ones don't," Burger said.
The news ones will be much easier to maintain because the design doesn't require all of the pieces to be pulled apart and instead can be cleaned by simply dunking the masks in water.
Congressman Neal recalled the Worcester warehouse fire in 1999 when six firefighters, four of whom were his constituents, died. The warehouse was large and sprawling and the firefighters were trapped and ran out of air. The federal government later created the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program to help prevent that from happening again.
"I've been a vigorous support of this initiative and I have always to fund it," Neal said.
He added that two focuses have been on oxygen and night vision, allowing firefighters to have a better sense of where they are and how to get out of a dangerous building.
"Across New England, we have a lot of old factories that are abandoned and there is a lot of oil on the floor. The second issue we tried to address with the fire grants over the years is night vision and how sophisticated that has become. I think as firefighters are called to the scene of an old building with who knows what in the floor, many times if you don't have a floor plan to go in you don't know where you are in the building. So night vision and oxygen are really important," Neal said.
With the Great Barrington grant, Burger said the trucks will be equipped with the new masks and airpacks. Burger said the new packs have essentially double the amount of oxygen available, giving firefighters more time. Additionally, the low air warning comes on when there is a third of a tank remaining instead of a quarter, giving firefighters more time to exit a building before running out.
The grant is particularly helpful to the volunteer fire department in a small, rural town which can't afford to make major upgrades all at once.
"Obviously, in a small town like this $160,000 is a huge capital item. All of the aid we can get back is really important. Both the Great Barrington Fire Department and the town as a whole has a great number of capital needs at this point. Any item that we can fund through grants is a major, major help," Burger said.
Neal credited the grant writers in the department for putting together a strong application for funding.
"These applications as they are submitted are subjected to rigorous scrutiny. The individuals who actually score the applications in the end are former firefighters and professional firefighters," Neal said.
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