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Rep. Neal Highlights FEMA Grant For Great Barrington Firefighters

Congressman Richard Neal meets with Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger Monday.
Jim Levulis
Congressman Richard Neal meets with Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger Monday.

Congressman Richard Neal was in Great Barrington today to celebrate a federal grant upgrading the town’s firefighting equipment.The Democrat met with Great Barrington Fire Chief Charles Burger at the fire station to highlight the $160,000 FEMA award.

“This grant is going towards replacing our self-contained breathing apparatus or what most people know of as air packs,” Burger said. “It’s the cylinders we wear on our backs in order to breathe clean air in a hazardous environment.”

Neal says part of the determination to bring about this type of funding stemmed from a 1999 warehouse fire in Worcester that killed six firefighters.

“In Worcester in particular the building was old and the firefighters ran out of oxygen,” Neal said. “They were lost in the building. They were trapped.”

Chief Burger expects to have 28 new air packs in the next three months, followed by a month of training before they are put in use.

“You have to be able to operate them flawlessly with your eyes closed at 3 o’clock in the morning,” said Burger.

Burger says the new air packs are made by a company called Scott which has 60 percent of the market share. They contain 50 percent more oxygen than the current “30-minute packs,” which provide about 12 minutes of working time. He says firefighting packs have universal air connections among the manufacturers.

“There are operating improvements with regards to communications,” Burger said. “Obviously speaking through a mask is very difficult particularly when speaking through a mask over a radio. These new units transmit sound through them almost as clean as speaking without a face piece on.”

Burger says the existing 32 packs are 11 years old — made a manufacturer that is out of business.

“The plastic is becoming more and more brittle and stuff is breaking,” he said. “Every time we use them we take multiple packs out of service that then need to be repaired.”

He adds that the new masks don’t have to be completely taken apart to clean them, unlike the current set.

“Despite the fact that’s just water that dried on there that creates such a strong seal, you physically cannot exhale,” Burger said. “You have to then take the thing apart – you hope the building’s not burning down at that point – break the seal, stick it back together and go to work.”

Burger says the town’s 35 active volunteer firefighters train with the equipment all the time, using it 20 to 30 times a year for fires, carbon monoxide and hazardous materials calls. He says the new equipment holds up better to modern firefighting because today’s building products release heat energy at three times the rate as materials used in the 1970s. Burger says when the current masks are scratched they can absorb heat energy and potentially fail.

“It looks like it glazes over and your first instinct is ‘Well, what’s wrong?’” Burger explained. “So you go to touch it and you just wipe your face piece right off your face. So the way we have to train people to do it is as soon as you think that something might be wrong you have to get out.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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