October 12, 2008
Fire Gear Contract Suspended After Suit
By Nathan McIntire
A $30 million plan to provide standardized breathing equipment for every fire department in Los Angeles County has been suspended after a lawsuit alleged the contract process was mishandled and firefighters complained about the quality of the equipment.Arcadia-based Allstar Fire Equipment is suing the city and county of Los Angeles, contending the contract process was improperly handled in a manner that ignored firefighter input and unfairly favored the winning bidder, L.N. Curtis and sons.
"The bidding process was so fundamentally flawed that, despite having been designed to allow all 32 participating fire departments to have an equal voice in the outcome, the actual decision was wrongfully made by two individuals," Allstar attorney Joseph G. McGuinness wrote in a court filing.
A judge imposed a restraining order Thursday that prevents the county from issuing any funds for the purchase of equipment from L.N. Curtis until the lawsuit is decided. The trial begins Oct. 21.
The restraining order comes just days after officials from firefighters unions across Los Angeles County sent a letter to about 30 Los Angeles-area fire chiefs requesting suspension of the contract due to concerns about the bidding process.
Union officials are also concerned about the safety record of the products offered by L.N. Curtis and sons, which distributes for Sperian Protection. Sperian was found liable last year for the death of a firefighter using its equipment.
"Firefighter input was actually tossed out of the equation or at least put in at a bare minimum, which we believe has skewed the results of the testing toward one manufacturer," said Rich Brandt, president of the Long Beach Firefighters union and one of the letter's signers.
"I think it's ludicrous to spend $30 million on a product that was supposedly evaluated by firefighters and did not come out No. 1 by any stretch of the imagination."
Ed Woo, vice president and general manager for Sperian Respiratory Protection USA, said his company could not comment on the lawsuit.
Funded by grants from the Department of Homeland Security, the contract was commissioned to provide a common Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus to fire agencies throughout Los Angeles County.
A vice president from the second district of the statewide California Professional Firefighters union, representing cities throughout the San Gabriel Valley, joined union presidents from area city and county firefighters associations to call for a review of the bid process.
Monrovia Fire Chief Christopher Donovan, who helped secure funding for the contract as a member of the Los Angeles-Area Fire Chief's Association, said previous lawsuits against Sperian were not considered during the bidding process.
The apparatus made by Sperian is a new model that conforms to national safety standards established in 2007, Donovan said.
Last year, Sperian was ordered by a jury to pay $27 million to the family of a St. Louis firefighter after the company was found liable for his death due to malfunctioning equipment.
The family of another firefighter who died in the same 2002 fire while wearing Sperian equipment settled their lawsuit with the company in 2006 for between $2 million and $5 million, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The contract was awarded to L.N. Curtis in July.
The selection process was controlled by a five-member committee made up of fire officials from five agencies who had the authority to award the bid. The committee chose the winning bid based on a formula that considered cost and performance evaluations of the equipment from firefigheters.
Allstar alleges that two members of the committee, from the city and county of Los Angeles, arbitrarily changed the performance evaluation scoring process, resulting in lopsided scores that favored Sperian and its distributor at the expense of the three other bidders.
Elizabeth Friedman of the County Counsel's office said the county stands by its contract and plans to fight the lawsuit.
"We believe that to be a valid and existing contract," Friedman said. "Basically, we're defending ourselves in that action."
Lawyers for the city of Los Angeles declined to comment further, said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office.
While individual fire departments cannot receive funding for the equipment until the lawsuit is resolved, they may purchase it themselves.
Jim Hone, the president of the LAAFC, said he is recommending fire chiefs to continue their purchase of Sperian equipment.
"We feel comfortable to continue moving," Hone said.
Pasadena has already purchased some of the Sperian equipment but will not use it or buy more until the lawsuit is resolved, department spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said.
"We won't open the boxes, we won't do any training until this comes to some kind of resolution," she said.
L.N. Curtis has been paid $7million for orders already fulfilled, according to court documents.
The Los Angeles city and county fire departments each currently use Sperian equipment.
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