February 5, 2008

Launching today, MSNBC.com's Bill Dedman takes an in-depth, two-part look into serious questions about firefighter safey equipment and the lack of attention the federal government paid to the problem. Part one focuses on PASS alarms, a device that emits a 95 decibel beep when a firefighter stops moving for 30 seconds. In the year 2000, government officials were warned that some PASS alarms might be failing and firefighters were dying -- but did nothing. More than 1 million professional and volunteer firefighters across the U.S. rely on PASS alarms as their last line of defense.

The Centers for Disease Control, the federal agency charged by Congress since 1998 with investigating firefighter deaths, ignored the warnings in early 2000 from its own fire safety engineer, who was ordered by a CDC manager not to investigate the possibly faulty equipment. At that point, six firefighters had died in fires when their PASS alarms didn't go off or were so quiet that searching firefighters couldn't hear them. It took five more years, until April 2005, for the CDC staff to issue a warning that PASS alarms can fail. A review by MSNBC.com of CDC investigative reports found nine more firefighter deaths -- a total of 15 deaths from 1998 through 2004. In each case, an automatic PASS device was not heard at all, or was too quiet to be heard until the firefighter was already found.

"Fire departments give good funerals," says Rich Duffy, the health and safety chief for the International Association of Fire Fighters. "We never did investigations to the extent that they were needed, but we did some very, very good funerals. If a cop dies, it's a crime scene. If a firefighter dies, it's a good funeral."

The in-depth investigation also includes video interviews, a gallery of the 15 firefighters who died, a timeline of the deaths and warnings that were ignored, documents in which the CDC told its fire safety engineer to "minimize your fact gathering" and a 360 degree tour of a firefighter's uniform and equipment, all of which is available at www.firefighters.msnbc.com.

In part two, launching Tuesday, Dedman finds that the CDC is taking as long as nine months to go to the scene of firefighter deaths, has cut back sharply on the number of investigations, and routinely destroys information that could help identify problems with firefighting equipment, training and tactics.

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