2012 FEMA grant finally delivers for Lake Johanna Fire Department

Just prior to being loaded into firetrucks and distributed to other stations, Lake Johanna Fire Department’s 60 new airpacks were on display at the department’s headquarters July 16. (photos by Mike Munzenrider/Bulletin)

Engineer Bruce Carlson loads one of the department’s new airpacks into a firetruck. The brackets that hold them are built into the truck’s seats.

Captain Nate Berg wearing the new equipment.

Lake Johanna Fire Department Chief Tim Boehlke said the difference between the department’s new self-contained breathing apparatuses—airpacks, in station parlance—and their old ones, is “night and day.”

While giving a rundown of the features on one of the department’s 60 new backpack-like oxygen tanks that firefighters wear coupled with a mask, to keep themselves safe and breathing during fires, Assistant Chief Eric Nordeen made a technological analogy: comparing the old airpacks to the new, he said it’s like a “block [phone] to your iPhone.”

The occasion for the fire station show-and-tell was made possible by a $338,229 FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant awarded to the fire department in 2012 expressly for the purchase of the new airpacks.

The airpacks, which must be replaced every 15 years based on federal testing standards, cost $5,200 each; to outfit every one of its 60 or so firefighters, the airpack upgrade would have been a significant investment without the grant.

According to Boehlke, the airpacks are one of the firefighters’ most important pieces of equipment, something they put on daily as they deal with calls. The daily use shows—the department’s outgoing 14-year-old airpacks, which would not comply with federal law come 2015—are banged up, the tanks speckled with paint and the shoulder straps threadbare and frayed.

The fire department, which, according to its website, serves 41,000 people in Arden Hills, North Oaks and Shoreview, would have looked to the cities to cover the cost of the airpacks; the FEMA grant pays for 90 percent of the price with the three cities covering the rest.

Without the grant, Boehlke said, a total cost of $371,000 would have been paid by the cities once the department’s old tanks’ compliance expired, with Shoreview covering 61 percent of that cost, Arden Hills 27 percent and North Oaks 12 percent.

Shutdown woes

Boehlke said the department applied for the grant in three consecutive years—2010, 2011 and 2012—each year getting a little bit closer in what he described as a “highly competitive” field of 16,000 fire departments of varying sizes from across the country.

With the grant application narrowed for the third try, only requesting funding for the airpacks and the brackets that would hold them in the department’s fire trucks, Boehlke said the grant was awarded April 5, 2012.

Boehlke said the department waited until new federal testing standards were in place in 2013 to start their search for new tanks, and then last summer’s government shutdown and sequestration spending cuts, according to Boehlke, further delayed the acquisition of the tanks, shuttering the federal agency in charge of testing standards.

Once the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the agency responsible for testing, cleared its backlog in March of this year, Boehlke said, the department was able to move forward with its purchase, taking delivery this month, finally loading the airpacks onto firetrucks July 16.

The waiting period was “very frustrating,” Boehlke said.

Fresh gear

The new airpacks, sleek and contained in their design (It “lessens the threat of getting entangled in things,” Nordeen said), are smaller yet hold more air at a higher pressure than the old, 45 minutes’ worth as opposed to half an hour’s, and feature a plethora of built-in functions that enhance firefighters’ safety.

For instance, as Captain Nate Berg gamely demonstrated by suiting up, the new airpacks feature motion sensors that sound a three-stage alarm if a firefighter stops moving; from the first stage’s firm alert to the ear-splitting screams of the third stage, the alarm most likely will not be missed.

Beyond the airpack’s alarm, its most important function is to ensure that firefighters have enough good, oxygenated air to breath. The airpacks have a heads-up-display in the mask that helps firefighters monitor how much air they have left using a color-coded system, while the back of the packs offer something similar, lights that change color as the pack’s air is used, visible to other firefighters as a backup.

“[The airpack’s features give] our guys extra time to get out of a hazardous environment,” Nordeen said.

Boehlke, a 29-year veteran firefighter, said, “They’ve come so far to make these very user friendly, dummy proof.”

Lake Johanna Fire Department’s old airpacks will be donated to places with less rigorous testing standards, most likely South America or the Philippines, Boehlke said, where they’ll be used another 10 to 15 years.

For more information about the Lake Johanna Fire Department, visit www.ljfd.org.

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.


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