Worn by a million firefighters in the U.S., the PASS device is a motion sensor that makes an awful racket if a firefighter stops moving for 30 seconds while battling a blaze. It flashes its lights and lets loose a series of ear-splitting beeps — an urgent call to help a fallen comrade.
It’s a call that hasn’t always been heard. Tests by federal and independent labs show that some PASS alarms can fail to perform as intended if they get too hot or wet — a serious problem for people who rush into burning buildings with water hoses.
In this February MSNBC.com investigation by Bill Dedman, it was revealed that 15 firefighters have died since 1998 in fires where a PASS alarm, or Personal Alert Safety System, either didn’t sound or was so quiet that rescuers weren’t given a chance to find the firefighter quickly.
Nine of those deaths came after the federal government blocked the investigation by its own expert into possible failures of PASS alarms and other firefighting equipment.
Dedman also found that a manager for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency in charge of investigating firefighter deaths, ordered an agency fire safety engineer on Feb. 14, 2000, to “minimize your fact-gathering during investigations.”
Judges cited “Bill Dedman’s skill at in-depth investigative reporting with an engaging, multi-faceted online presentation that further told the story using a wide array of interactive tools. Viewers were able to hear the words of a widow, see the faces of the fallen, and even see in 360-degree detail where the oft ill-equipped PASS devices attach to firefighters.
“The presentation embraced the online medium by utilizing words, photos, sound, video and interactive graphics to envelop the viewers into the situation. This was also a story that resonated universally and affects the highest calling — to protect human life.”
This report has prompted an investigation by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human services.