Sen. John Kerry on Monday asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate “deeply troubling” information in an msnbc.com special report indicating that the federal unit charged with probing firefighter deaths ignored a warning in 2000 that personal alarms used at fire scenes might be failing.
“It is completely unacceptable that our first responders don’t have the proper safety equipment, and if these allegations prove true, it’s unfathomable that the CDC would cover up something so detrimental to our firefighters’ safety,” Kerry told msnbc.com. “I have asked the Department of Health and Human Services to launch a full investigation into these allegations. Nearly 1 million brave men and women risk their lives every day; we owe it to them and to the families of the deceased firefighters to get answers and hold the negligent parties accountable.”
Within hours of the story’s publication, Kerry’s office issued a press release stating that the Massachusetts Democrat had written to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson requesting the investigation of the unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention charged with investigating firefighters’ deaths.
Donald White, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office at HHS, said the office would review Kerry’s request over the next several weeks, after which “it will get assigned to the proper component within the office ... for further investigation as warranted.”
Kerry's letter cited msnbc.com’s special report indicating that the CDC's firefighter fatality unit had ignored a warning from its own fire safety engineer in 2000 that the alarms, known as PASS devices, appeared to have failed in two separate incidents in which firefighters died.
The msnbc.com investigation, based on federal investigative reports, documents made public under the Freedom of Information Act and extensive interviews, revealed that 15 firefighters have died since 1998 in fires where a PASS, or Personal Alert Safety System, either didn't sound or was so quiet that rescuers weren't given a chance to find the firefighter quickly. Nine of those deaths came after the federal government blocked the investigation by its own expert into possible failures of PASS alarms and other firefighting equipment, the documents show.
The report cited a letter from a manager for the Centers for Disease Control ordering the fire safety engineer to "minimize your fact gathering during investigations" and to refrain from “the collection of detailed information not of likely use in an investigation.”
No one can say for sure that a PASS device caused any of the 15 deaths in which the alarms weren’t heard. And it's impossible to say that any firefighter would necessarily have survived if the PASS alarm had been seen and heard.
Five years later after the engineer's warning, in March 2005, the CDC’s firefighter fatality program recommended that “manufacturers, researchers and standard-setting bodies should investigate the performance of PASS alarms/devices under extreme conditions,” and the following month called for higher standards for the devices.
Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate who narrowly missed defeating President Bush’s bid for a second term, has enjoyed strong support from firefighters during his 20 years in the Senate and won the International Association of Fire Fighters’ endorsement during his White House bid.
He said on Jan. 24 that he would not join the crowded Democratic field for the 2008 race for the White House, and would instead seek re-election to his Senate seat next year.