All dressed up: Local firefighters add vital new gear

by: illustration by PATRICK SHERMAN, Local firefighters have added vital new lifesaving gear.

The firefighters of Clackamas County Fire District #1 are dressed for success, thanks to a $460,000 grant from the U.S. Fire Agency. The money paid for new self-contained breathing apparatus, which allow them to survive and work in the dense smoke of a structure fire.

'These packs meet the newest requirements of the National Fire Protection Agency,' said Captain Jamie Nowlin. 'It's a Scott AP50.'

The packs incorporate several new features not included in CCFD #1's older gear, including integrated PASS alarms. An acronym for 'Personal Accountability Safety System,' the alarm sounds if a firefighter is immobile for more than 60 seconds, alerting other firefighters in the area that he or she may be injured or unconscious.

'We've always had PASS alarms, but these are integrated into the air pack, so that it always comes on automatically when you turn on your air cylinder,' said Nowlin.

In addition to a conventional pressure gauge, the new units also incorporate a heads-up display in the firefighter's protective facemask - allowing the quantity of air remaining to be determined at a glance.

'You start out with two green lights, and that goes down to one green light,' Nowlin explained. 'Then it changes over to a blinking amber light, which means you've got less than half of your total air supply remaining. When it starts blinking red, you're down to less than a quarter.'

Also, the unit's breathing regulator begins to vibrate when the air pressure remaining in the cylinder drops.

'You're not going to miss the fact that your head is vibrating,' said Nowlin.

The system also incorporates a voice amplifier, to help overcome the muffled words that result from speaking inside a rubber mask.

'It makes for better communications,' said Assistant Chief Ed Kirchhofer. 'The one thing you have to keep in mind is that the radio microphone is sensitive, so you have to overcome the temptation to hold it right up to the amplifier, or you'll over-modulate the radio.'

Along with the new apparatus, the district acquired more than 400 carbon-fiber air cylinders, which hold 50 percent more air than the tanks used previously.

'They also have a universal RIT connection, that lets you put more air in the cylinder in an emergency,' Nowlin said.

RIT is an acronym for 'Rapid Intervention Team,' and refers to a team of firefighters who are available on scene in case one of their colleagues or a civilian is trapped inside a burning structure.

'They are ready to make entry at a moment's notice to make a quick rescue or evacuation,' Kirchhofer explained. 'We'll generally assign a fully equipped company to the function, and at a large fire, we'll have a couple of RIT teams.'

To practice using their new equipment and sharpen their RIT skills, crews from CCFD #1 rendezvoused at Ultrazone laser tag on McLoughlin Boulevard last week. The arena - the domain of battling birthday bashes on most other days - was filled with an extra-dense layer of artificial fog and a din of pre-recorded fire sounds, including the growl of power tools and the wail of sirens.

'This is outstanding training, absolutely,' said Captain Chris Geiger, emerging with his crew from the arena. 'The environment in there is very similar to a real fire ground - it's dark, it's smoky and there is a lot of ambient noise.'