Tougher Standards Set for PASS Device

Updated: 02-12-2007 11:10:36 AM

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)

A vital piece of firefighter gear that was at issue in lawsuits over two deaths in St. Louis is now subject to tighter reliability testing, a standards oversight organization has announced.

The change is designed to ensure that lost, injured or incapacitated firefighters will be easier to find. But manufacturers might have a tough time complying.

The National Fire Protection Association on Friday announced its revised standard for Personal Alert Safety Systems, known as PASS devices, which sound loud distress alarms at the push of a button - or automatically if a firefighter stops moving.

NFPA standards have the force of law in Texas and are almost universally followed everywhere else.

In two lawsuits, the widows of a pair of St. Louis firefighters killed on May 3, 2002, allege that a PASS malfunction caused or contributed to the deaths.

Jurors were deliberating when the first lawsuit was settled for between $1 million and $5 million. In that case, Rob Morrison's widow and children claimed that water caused Morrison's Survivair-brand PASS device to fail when he became incapacitated. He wasn't found for 20 minutes.

Survivair's lawyer, Lynn Hursh, admitted that the company knew as early as 1999 that some PASS devices manufactured before 2004 leaked, and that water could then reach internal electronic circuitry. But Hursh said the PASS was designed so that if there were a problem, it would just sound continuously or cycle the alarm on and off.

Survivair employees and executives testified that they didn't formally tell fire departments about the leaks because they didn't think it was a safety issue. But in a 2000 brochure, they were advertising their PASS as "watertight to 1 meter minimum."

Hursh said that Morrison, the fire department and other firefighters made a series of mistakes that led to Morrison's death that night.

Firefighter Derek Martin died while trying to rescue Morrison. His wife and children's lawsuit is pending. It claims Martin would not have died if Morrison's PASS worked and if a valve on Martin's air mask worked properly.

NFPA spokeswoman Lorraine Carli said the standards change was prompted by information received in late 2005 from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It raised questions about PASS devices that were either barely heard or inaudible in four firefighter fatalities between 2001 and 2004.

Carli said she was not sure whether the deaths of Martin and Morrison were among the four studied.

An NFPA committee took that information and worked with the safety and health institute and another testing agency to develop the new standards, she said.

PASS devices now will be repeatedly baked, tumbled and dunked in water, at times with their battery compartments open, to test whether their operation is affected, she said. They also will be examined to ensure they are audible no matter what the wearer's position.

"Now they have to (meet the standard)," Carli said. "I'm not sure if they can or not."

Mark Deasy, a spokesman for firefighter and safety equipment manufacturer MSA, said "We are working on it." He added, "It's going to be a challenging standard to meet."

Deasy said the company can sell existing models through Aug. 31. After that, the old models cannot be listed as NFPA-compliant.

St. Louis fire Chief Sherman George said his department has been watching the evolving standard and is obtaining prices on adding a second PASS device for each firefighter.