Fire Department to Replace New Gloves After Six Suffer Hand Burns

NY Times - February 04, 2011

by AL BAKER

The New York City Fire Department has determined that its new fire-retardant gloves have a critical flaw: they do not adequately protect firefighters from burns.

Since November, six firefighters have suffered second-degree burns on the backs of their hands fighting four house fires around the city, fire officials said. All were wearing the new Blaze Fighter model of gloves; in each instance, the gloves themselves were not damaged.

The department is quickly moving to replace the gloves, made by the Glove Corp. They are now being worn by 6,500 firefighters in the 11,500-member force, at a total cost of about $850,000.

The first sign of trouble came on Nov. 14, when three men on a hose line at a house fire in Brooklyn suffered second-degree burns to the backs of their hands.

"The largest is the size of a quarter," said James Long, a Fire Department spokesman. "It was blisters on the back of the hands, and on the fingers."

Three days later, a firefighter on a Brooklyn rooftop was burned in a similar fashion. On Dec. 25, a fifth firefighter suffered the same burns; on Jan. 23, a sixth, in the Bronx, was burned.

The department bought the gloves in September, after a successful trial run. Officials at the time hailed them for their state-of-the-art design and tapered fit; they met National Fire Protection Association standards.

But after the series of injuries, officials from the department's safety command began an inquiry, using an "independent, outside expert" to determine if the physical make-up of the gloves had been a factor, Chief of Department Edward S. Kilduff said.

The analysis revealed that the manufacturer had changed one of the materials used in the gloves. The change from a cotton fiber to a polyester blend made the gloves noncompliant with the national safety standards, Chief Kilduff said.

The Glove Corp put out an advisory last month noting that the Blaze Fighter model had "encountered issues with the performance of the conductive heat resistance test," adding that the company had received "reported cases of back of hand burns with a few pairs of this glove model."

This is not the first time the Fire Department has grappled with issues of equipment — or the lack of it.

A controversy erupted in 2005 when two firefighters, working without personal safety ropes, were killed when they jumped from a burning apartment in the Bronx to escape flames.

After the events of 9/11, failures in radio equipment — including a device meant to increase the signal of hand-held radios so it could reach the trade center's high floors — were cited as having possibly led to unnecessary deaths. Communications on Sept. 11 were also hampered as firefighters were using old, analog radios instead of new digital ones, and as police and fire radios operated on different frequencies.

"Their history with equipment has been really mixed over the years," said Glenn P. Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The F.D.N.Y. has been a leader in development of new equipment around the nation; with air packs and hose lines and the halogen tool. On the flip side, they have also been, in some cases, slow to respond."

The Fire Department decided in 2009 to phase out the gloves that it had used for a decade. The Blaze Fighter model was chosen, mostly because firefighters liked them during a test phase. A Fire Department press release last year offered an endorsement from Firefighter Aaron Buch, of Rescue Company 1, who described being able to feel his "call button" through his glove to issue a Mayday after falling through a floor at a fire in Chinatown.

The Fire Department has referred the matter to the city's Law Department, said Gail Rubin, the chief of the city Law Department's affirmative litigation division.

The Glove Corp's Web site does not list any of its clients, and telephone calls to its general manager were not returned. A woman who answered the phone said the company had closed as of Jan. 31, though she could provide no details. The closing of the company could complicate the city's efforts to recoup costs.

But possible legal or economic battles, aside, Chief Kilduff said, "The most important part of it, in our mind, is we need to get these gloves replaced as soon as possible."

The department has put its unions on notice about the problems and on Thursday evening sent a "department order" to every firehouse letting rank and file members know of the plans to get other gloves in place, soon.

"We understand we have to act as quickly as possible," Chief Kilduff said. "One injury is one too many."

Alain Delaqueriere contributed reporting.