PITTSFIELD -- City officials were joined Monday by state lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal to announce a $132,300 federal grant to update the breathing equipment firefighters use at smoky fire scenes.

During a press conference at Pittsfield Fire Department Headquarters on Columbus Avenue, Chief Robert Czerwinski also lauded two firefighters with a track record of writing successful grant proposals. In recent years, the chief said, Deputy Chief Mark Cancilla and Firefighter Neil Myers have teamed in preparing applications that have brought in more than $2.5 million in funding.

"It has been a tough time for local governments throughout the nation," Neal said.

That's why having professional staff members who can help fill the gap by obtaining grants is becoming a necessity, he said.

The Assistance to Firefighters federal grant program is competitive, he noted, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which distributes the awards, received some 20,000 applications nationally.

In that environment, Cancilla and Myers have helped the department secure "all sorts of equipment," Czerwinski said, from imaging equipment to detect heat and flames up to a ladder truck and another vehicle.

With the tightness of municipal budgets in recent years, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said, "I feel bad for the chief when we sit down to write budgets." But Bianchi said grants for equipment and vehicles have helped filled the gaps.

The mayor and other officials said equipment updates also are important to protect firefighters in the dangerous conditions in which they operate.

Neal said an impetus for the grant program was a deadly mill blaze in Worcester in 1999 in which six firefighters were killed. Four of the six were from a community he represented, he said. In that fire, it is believed the firefighters ran out of air inside the mill complex as they searched for homeless people reported to be inside.

Because of that experience, Neal said, he understands the vital importance of breathing apparatus, such as the Scott Air Pak tanks that city firefighters carry when entering burning buildings and under smoky conditions or when dealing with hazardous materials of fumes. That is especially true in the Northeast, which has a high percentage of aging buildings, he said.

Czerwinski and firefighter Donald Whalen said the grant will allow an upgrade of the equipment the department uses to 2013 standards. That includes greater resistance of masks and other parts to heat -- which can reach 500 degrees near the floor in a building ablaze to 1,700 degrees near ceilings -- and features such as emergency flashing and signaling attachments and a connection to attach a second air tank when one has run out and a firefighter is trapped.

Currently, the department has equipment spanning several eras, including some dating to late 1990s standards.

Another feature of the newer breathing equipment, the chief said, is it will provide greater protection in chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or similar dangerous environments.

Other officials attending the press conference included state Sen. Ben Downing, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler, and city councilors Jonathan Lothrop and Kevin Morandi.

To reach Jim Therrien:
jtherrien@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien.