When Lackawanna hired Jason Szpara and eight others to be firefighters in 2014, the cash-strapped city issued them old used breathing masks that had been turned in by retirees.
The safety equipment was tattered, Szpara recalled.
Now, on occasion, when there’s a large fire in Lackawanna, there aren’t enough self contained breathing apparatus – the masks and related equipment – to equip every firefighter, Lackawanna Fire Chief Ralph Galanti admitted.
“In the last few years, we’ve gone on larger scale fires that we haven’t had enough for everyone we called in,” Galanti said. “We did not have enough complete SCBAs.”
The issue came to a head following the massive fire at the former Bethlehem steel plant in November, which burned for four days. Firefighters needed not only breathing masks, but additional equipment to keep from inhaling plumes of toxic smoke. Buffalo firefighters loaned Lackawanna firefighters some breathing equipment at the scene.
Szpara appeared before the Lackawanna City Council at a recent meeting to urge the lawmakers to spend $6,560 on new masks and other breathing-related equipment for firefighters.
“The conditions of these face pieces are deteriorating, becoming damaged, beat up and in some cases just simply unusable,” Szpara stated in a letter to council members. “As firefighters, this face piece is the first line of defense in hazardous air conditions.”
Szpara, 28, is a member of the committee formed by Lackawanna Fire Fighters IAFF Local 3166 to address the equipment concerns. The lack of safety equipment is inexcusable, he said.
“It’s a problem that people need to be aware of,” said Szpara. “Without masks we have no way of breathing. You shouldn’t have that hanging over your head. Look, we need some equipment, but the money is just not there.
“We had another fire on steel plant property on the west side of Route 5 at a pallet company,” Szpara said. “When we have a fire that big we call more of our guys in, but another fire broke out at the same time on Apple Avenue. There was one SCBA on the truck that responded to the Apple fire.”
Lackawanna lawmakers were receptive.
“No one should share a mask or a breathing apparatus,” said Annette Iafallo, second ward councilwoman. “Everyone should have their own. It’s a no-brainer. Safety and health issues must be the number one priority. I was told that at another fire, firefighters had to share masks. To me that’s ridiculous.”
A self-contained breathing apparatus provides firefighters breathable compressed air in dangerous fire conditions. It consists of a tank, a pressure regulator and an inhalation connection — or breathing mask. The average cost for the full set is $6,000, which also includes a carrying frame worn on a firefighter’s back. New Kevlar breathing masks run $255 each, according to the purchase quote obtained by the fire union.
There are federal grants available to fire departments for the purchase of SCBAs, Galanti said. Administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Aid to Firefighters grant is available annually for a limited time at year’s end.
”We’ve been lucky with the grant system,” said Galanti. “It’s very competitive, and we were able to obtain a number of SCBAs before the hiring in 2014.”
Galanti said the department is always looking for funding sources to purchase equipment, and that SCBAs are on his wish list.
“But we also need a new engine,” Galanti said. “We’re using one from 1997, and repairs are becoming more frequent. It’s one of our front-line trucks. It costs $330,000.”
Firefighter Anthony J. Morano, who went through the fire academy with Galanti, started with the department in 1989. As president of the firefighters union, Morano said he understood the budget funding process, but he believed safety should come first.
“We’ve been asking the chief for SCBA masks for years,” said Morano. “When I first got on in ’89, there were (breathing) masks on the trucks and you grabbed the one that fit you the best. But over time and with use, the masks start cracking. The straps get worn and loose and don’t pull the face pieces tightly. The (Bethlehem) fire was the tipping point.”
Sharing used equipment is not unusual, according to federal guidelines for grant application for obtaining SCBAs, said Jerry DeLuca, executive director of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.
“Many departments throughout the state, especially smaller departments and those serving rural areas, will have older equipment as long as it passes safety inspections by the National Fire Protection Association,” said DeLuca, a volunteer firefighter for 35 years who lives in Albany County.
“Each individual firefighter ideally should have their own mask, but in some areas used masks are employed,” said DeLuca. “You simply wipe them off with an alcohol swab.”
Galanti said Lackawanna’s SCBAs are inspected annually.
Third Ward Councilman Joseph L. Jerge said the matter must be rectified. The funding request could face a council vote as soon as Monday.
“Obviously the Bethlehem fire brought out the fact we could use more safety gear,” said Jerge. “We as a council agree that the cost to buy the equipment was minimal compared to safety. You can’t put a price tag on the safety of firefighters.”