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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Investigation underway after contaminants found in Spokane Fire Department air compressors

Spokane Fire Department firefighters swap out their air tanks as they battle a blaze at the Houston Apartments at 617 E. Houston Avenue. Findings of contaminants prompted the department to shut down its three air compressors in mid-November; the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries has opened an investigation. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The state is investigating the Spokane Fire Department after contaminants reportedly were found in firefighters’ air tanks.

The discovery, which occurred in mid-November after firefighters noticed a foul smell coming from air canisters during a breathing test, prompted fire department leaders to shut down all three of the department’s air compressors. Those compressors had been used to fill and refill 500 air tanks used by about 330 firefighters throughout 16 fire stations.

As a result, the department has been forced to borrow several dozen air tanks and self-contained breathing apparatus packs from neighboring fire departments, including Spokane County Fire Districts 8, 9 and 10, Cheney Fire Department, Spokane Valley Fire Department, Pullman Fire Department and Kootenai County Fire and Rescue. The city also is borrowing an air compressor from Spokane Valley, and uses other compressors from county fire districts for incidents where firefighters need to refill canisters on the scene.

On Dec. 21, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries opened an investigation following a report of oil and contaminants in the air bottles, and an air compressor not being serviced in a timely manner, said spokeswoman Elaine Fisher. The investigation is ongoing and could take several months.

If the reports are found valid, the city could be on the hook for a sizable fine.

Randy Marler, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union, said firefighters were “anxious” as they’ve waited months for final word on whether the department bottles are contaminated. Marler said early testing by the city found lead and other impurities in one of the tanks.

“That’s probably what has some of the members kind of worked up,” Marler said. “We don’t know for sure if that’s all samples. We’re doing more tests and more samples to make sure it wasn’t a bad swab.”

Another potential issue is firefighter readiness in the event of a large-scale fire. Each day, about 70 firefighters are on duty, each one allotted one air pack and bottle, Marler said. The air compressor on loan from Spokane Valley is capable of filling only two canisters at a time, and it takes 10 to 15 minutes.

With their other, larger canisters, Marler said firefighters could expect 25 to 30 minutes of working air out of a 45-minute-bottle. Some of the loaned canisters, however, are 30-minute bottles, which realistically provide 15 to 20 minutes of air when under duress and near fire.

“If we’re out of air, we’re out of air,” he said. “We can’t go in.”

Deputy Fire Chief Mark John said the department already has weathered multiple fire situations without issue, such as an incident in late December when a hair salon caught fire in north Spokane. Fire District 9 responded, compressor in tow.

“We’ve not had any significant issues with our air supply,” John said. “It certainly potentially poses some challenges, which is why we’re working as quickly as we can to remedy the problem.”

On Dec. 4, the same day Labor and Industries received the complaint, Spokane City Council members denied the department $192,000 to replace two of the compressors, citing a lack of information. In his expenditure request, Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer wrote that it would take three months to deliver the parts necessary to replace the system, “thus the importance of pursuing an accelerated timeline.”

“With the latest failure the need has become most urgent,” Schaeffer wrote.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, chair of the Public Safety and Community Health committee, said Tuesday that the council members present for that meeting didn’t get the sense that “people’s lives were in danger,” which is why the request was tabled until a vendor for the compressors could be identified. On Wednesday, however, she said it may have been a misperception that led council members to deny funding.

“Perhaps there wasn’t enough information provided and the urgency wasn’t communicated effectively,” she said. “Once we understand that, then of course that’s a priority. I think it was a miscommunication. I just think there were some council members who didn’t understand how urgent this was.”

The funding request will be reintroduced Monday, when it is expected to be approved.

Regardless of whether the bottles are contaminated, John and Marler said the two compressors identified in the request to the City Council – one housed in Fire Station 1, the other at the training facility – would need to be replaced outright and were scheduled for replacement before they were shut down.

The other compressor, which is mobile, is a few years old and can be repaired once a problem is identified.

Council President Ben Stuckart, who was not present at the Dec. 4 meeting, said he was more concerned with how the department allowed all three compressors to become inoperable at once.

“I think we should have never been in a position to replace two,” he said. “It’s a lack of planning on operations at the fire department.”

To avoid situations like this in the future, Kinnear said the committee has reworked the paperwork to make it more clear what is being asked and from where.

“Our whole strategic plan is geared to when you fill out a consent agenda item, the paperwork is very thorough,” she said.

Editor’s note: The story was updated on Jan. 4, 2018 to remove an error that incorrectly attributed early testing results to a health consultant called Veritox Inc. Veritox is testing the city’s breathing equipment, but early tests were completed by the city.