Fire Fighting in Canada

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Working Fire: PASS – an important safety device

PASS: an important safety device

December 11, 2007
By Harold Harvey

haroldharveyIt has been over 25 years now since a fire fighter below the border came up with the idea of an alarm device for fire fighters following a near personal tragedy. During a fire involving a number of cars in a  subterranean garage, the fire fighter’s breathing apparatus registered a low air alarm. Notifying fellow fire fighters that he was heading out, he then began to follow the hoseline in the direction of an exit. However, he became disorientated and after some scary moments finally found fresh air.

In the weeks that followed he began to ask why a device was not available that a fire fighter could activate to allow others to know where he could be located.

Trial and error followed and eventually a crude device resulted with parts from an electronics store and a nine-volt battery. Thus was born the personal alert safety system or PASS.

Of course as with any tool in the fire service, it had its detractors but gradually was universally accepted as an integral part of the department’s fire fighter safety program. Initially the device had only an on/off switch using a metal box with power supplied by a nine-volt battery. It required manual activation by the wearer. This soon evolved into a moulded plastic fire retardant box complete with a motion sensor and an improved audible alarm.

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Manual or automatic activation was possible but obviously the wearer had to turn it on!

While running over a number of reports dealing with the deaths of fire fighters, investigators frequently mention that the PASS was worn but not activated by the victim prior to being in a compromising position. In some cases, the unit was found to have a  depleted battery but it was not determined if the failure of the latter was due to prolonged activation. As well, fireground sounds may have made it impossible to hear the alarm signal.

In at least one case the device was inaudible due to the fact that it was found underneath the victim with the tone being thereby muffled.

Of course, over the years there have been a multitude of devices introduced including those measuring temperature as well as ones built in as part of the SCBA system. While these are useful once the SCBA is in operation, fire fighters might also want to consider using the traditional ones as there have been cases where firefighters have collapsed outside of the hot zone for one reason or another.

Another improvement has been a tracking system that assists the fireground commander in locating all personal who are equipped with the device.

In any case, the device must be in working order and the changing of the battery could be well timed with the changing of the hour in the spring or fall or both – we ask civilians to do the same with their smoke detectors!

One welcome sound on the fireground should be the testing of PASS devices by all members present before the battle begins. It should join the sounds of breathing apparatus, nozzles being cracked before entry and ventilation saws being put to work.

Well-known fire instructor Harold Harvey, tpi, is the Director (Fire Chief) of the Vaudreuil-Dorion (Que.) Fire Department and a 39-year veteran of the fire service.


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