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N.Y. to Replace Gas Masks for First Responders

The state Homeland Security office is recalling more than 35,000 gas masks it shipped to counties statewide because they don't meet federal standards for protection in chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear disasters, according to state and county officials.

In a program that began about a month ago in Nassau and last week in Suffolk, the state asked the counties to retrieve the masks that were distributed several years ago to police, firefighters, ambulance crews and other first responders. For each mask returned, the state will provide a new air respirator that meets federal guidelines.

More than 5,000 respirators are to be exchanged in Nassau and about 10,000 in Suffolk, county officials said.

In 2003, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the state spent $10.8 million in federal homeland security funds to buy the original masks for 34 counties.

New York distributed the masks, manufactured by Safety Equipment Australia, as it raced to be among the first states to protect its first responders, said state homeland security spokesman Dennis Michalski.

New York City, which received its own federal money, did not participate in the state program.

The masks "were judged at that time to be state-of-the-art because there were no federal guidelines, no safety guidelines," Michalski said. "In light of 9/11 and the terrorist threat ... we wanted to provide our first responders with the best equipment at that time."

In 2005, however, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health came out with air-purifying respirator standards for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear disasters. While the original masks protect against toxic industrial contaminants, such as asbestos and tear gas, they do not meet the 2005 disaster standards, Michalski said.

Richard Metzler, president of Safety Equipment America, which distributes the Australian company's products, said the respirators had been made to be used in the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environments, but the 2005 standards "were more stringent than anticipated."

Michalski said the state has ordered 25,000 new respirators and in May rolled out a one-for-one replacement program that has cost $3.2 million so far, again using federal homeland security funds.

State homeland security notified counties about the exchange program in a letter that said it was "imperative" all potential users of the old respirators be advised that they are not to be used in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear environments; are not approved for those environments and "will not provide adequate protection to preserve the life of the user."

Metzler disagreed, saying the SEA respirators "are protective, but they don't meet the technical standard that NIOSH came out with."

Deputy Insp. Stuart Cameron, commanding officer of the Suffolk police Special Patrol Bureau, said police did not know how the original masks would hold up during various kinds of attacks and were happy to get the new ones.

"We had to have the assurance that if we're going to send a cop, the mask won't fail," he said.

Officials in both Nassau and Suffolk said they did not believe the original masks had ever been used.

Joe Williams, Suffolk's Commissioner of Fire, Rescue and Emergency services, commended the state's efforts. "They did a positive thing in 2003 and 2004 to try to protect the first responders."

Staff writer Christine Armario contributed to this story.

SOURCE: State Office of Homeland Security

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