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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane firefighters get new compressors to fill air tanks, amid concerns of lead contamination

FILE - Spokane Fire Department crews battle a car fire that spread to a boarded-up home next to 1802 West Gardner, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, in Spokane. Firefighters have been using air supplies from surrounding departments since early December, after a strange odor was discovered coming from breathing bottles and subsequent tests showed lead contamination. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Two new compressors supplying Spokane firefighters with breathable air are expected to arrive in the next two months, as officials continue to investigate the source of lead contamination discovered last month.

The Spokane City Council unanimously approved the emergency purchase of the two new devices Monday at a cost of $160,000 from Bauer, a California-based firm specializing in air purification systems. The Spokane Fire Department stopped the use of its existing compressors, both of which were built decades ago, in early December after discovery of an odd odor coming from air bottles during routine equipment checks. A subsequent test revealed lead and other contaminants in the bottles, but their source – and the potential health risk to those using the tanks – remains unknown, pending the results of additional lab results.

“We determined there’s a presence of lead,” Spokane Fire Division Chief David Stockdill. “But we don’t know if it’s a problem, if it is, how bad a problem it is, or where it came from.”

The department sent air samples taken after the odor was discovered to the lab for testing and said those samples met established air quality standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. Those standards call for quarterly testing of air samples for levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other substances, though not specifically for lead. The metal was discovered as “debris” in the bottom of the bottles, Stockdill told city council members during a briefing session at City Hall on Monday morning.

Lawmakers, who initially balked at the request last month for a more expensive contract to replace the compressors from a different vendor, pressed Fire Department officials on how to avoid contamination issues in the future.

“Have we instituted a new test, moving forward, to find these problems, or are we just going to continue testing at the national standards?” City Council President Ben Stuckart asked. “The test that didn’t find the problem, until we had smells?”

The agency is waiting for the results of the additional testing before determining what, if any, tests need to change moving forward, said Deputy Fire Chief Mark John.

“There’s nothing so far, really definitive about, even if we identify it, then what’s the next step? How do we mitigate it?” John said.

The smell was reported in some of the department’s air bottles on Dec. 2, and those bottles were removed from service, according to a briefing provided to the City Council by the Fire Department. Subsequent bottles with a strange odor were discovered the next day, and the department quickly removed all of its bottles, packs and compressors from service, John said. The next day, the Fire Department approached the City Council for a request to replace the compressors, which were already slated for upgrades, but council members asked for additional information before approving the purchase.

Firefighters will continue to use loaner bottles, and refill from compressors owned by other surrounding agencies, until the new devices arrive, Stockdill said. There’s no plan to bring the older compressors back online.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries has opened an investigation into the contamination following a complaint from within the department, and Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 has hired its own firm to test the system. Randy Marler, president of the union, told the council Monday his organization was working closely with the department on the issue.

“I think there are still more questions than there are answers right now,” Marler said. “But I do think that we’re all working cooperatively to get to the bottom of it.”

The new compressors will replace the existing machines at Spokane Fire Station 1 downtown and the fire training center near the campus of Spokane Community College.