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Firms Develop New Protective Gear for Rescuers in Terror Attacks - 2002-07-11

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, demand has surged for security and safety devices ranging from luggage screening machines at airports to protective gear worn by policemen and firefighters. Many companies have responded to the demand, either rushing new products to the market or revamping existing products to meet new standards of safety or protection. In Miami Beach, one company recently showed off gear designed for firefighters and other likely first responders to any future terrorist attacks.

Michael Brookman stands at a large booth in the Miami Beach Convention Center. He is the president of Interspiro, a Connecticut-based company that manufactures protective gear for firefighters. On display is a so-called "self contained breathing apparatus", or SCBA, consisting of a cylinder tank, harness, mask and airflow regulator.

"They [SCBA's] are very commonly used by firefighters when they face a fire risk," he said. "But now with counter-terrorism concerns there are new [safety] standards that have been developed. And we are the first company to meet that new standard."

The standards were established by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control. They specify a new level of protection against chemical, biological and radiological agents for likely first responders to terrorist attacks.

Interspiro's SCBA model, called the "Spiromatic-S2" works by providing pressurized air inside the breathing mask for up to an hour at a time. Michael Brookman says the pressure makes it harder for potentially-harmful agents to get in, safeguarding a firefighter's respiratory system.

"The most important thing an SCBA can do is protect the face, including the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs, of a firefighter when they respond to a hazardous situation. Usually that involves fire. But in counter-terrorism situations you [potentially]have very nasty agents like mustard gas and sarin that firefighters are now concerned about."

Firefighters' reviews of the Spiromatic-S2 have been positive. Scott Dillon, a career fireman from New Haven, Connecticut, says firefighters must now be prepared to respond to situations that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, and need a high level of protection if they are to fulfill their missions.

"We have been on anthrax calls which, luckily, have been false. But there have been hundreds of them throughout our city. And, knowing that this is available to us is comforting," he said.

Scott Dillon says it is not difficult to imagine terrorism-related scenarios where an effective self contained breathing apparatus would be of critical importance. Even so, he admits that danger cannot be eliminated completely, and that no SCBA could have saved the firefighters who perished in the World Trade Center on September 11th.

"Some of them were incinerated, crushed. The poor guys didn't have a chance to use an SCBA at all. But, if you look at [chemical] attacks in subway systems, if they [emergency crews] had a unit like this, the rescuers could go in knowing that they would be safe," he said.

Interspiro President Michael Brookman says, in addition to firefighters, his company's product has drawn interest from federal law enforcement officials, the military, and even the public at large. But he stresses that an SCBA is not something that average citizens should keep in their closets.

"This is not consumer equipment. A number of people have approached us since September 11 asking to buy the product. And the short answer is no. This is not appropriate equipment for consumers," he said. "It requires special training. It is very much like scuba equipment, you need special certification to use it."

Interspiro does, however, sell a chemical warfare kit for its SCBA's developed in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force that features a protective hood and special air filters.