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St. Petersburg mulls replacing helmets at the center of firefighters' lawsuits

Retired and active St. Petersburg firefighters in a lawsuit say the 1044 Cairns model helmets, left, are unbalanced.
Retired and active St. Petersburg firefighters in a lawsuit say the 1044 Cairns model helmets, left, are unbalanced.
Published Jun. 13, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Before becoming mayor, attorney Rick Kriseman represented a firefighter who claimed his city-issued helmet was defective and caused serious neck injuries.

Now, two years later, Kriseman is considering replacing the headgear for all St. Petersburg firefighters.

As he mulls next year's $221 million budget, Kriseman is thinking about ditching the 1044 Cairns model helmets that are at the center of five pending lawsuits filed by a group of active and retired firefighters. Kriseman's former boss, Jim Magazine, happens to be the attorney for the firefighters.

If all 313 helmets are replaced, it would cost the city $60,000.

City officials say there could be an opportunity for a better price if new ones are bought in bulk.

But Kriseman also is considering new helmets out of an "abundance of caution," said his chief of staff, Kevin King.

"The mayor wants to ensure our men and women have the best equipment," King told the Tampa Bay Times.

Questions about the helmets surfaced this year when a group of firefighters filed product liability lawsuits in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, claiming their city-issued helmets had design flaws that led to injury.

The firefighters say the helmets are unbalanced and caused neck and back injuries.

Magazine has likened them to "bobbleheads."

"I had to retire because of the helmet," former firefighter Scott Crowell said. "I've been basically homebound for two years."

Crowell was the first firefighter to raise the helmet issue. He has a pending workers' compensation case against the city and filed a product liability lawsuit in 2013. It has not been resolved.

Back then, he was represented in part by Kriseman, who was working for Magazine. Kriseman was elected mayor the same year. Magazine's firm gave $500 to Kriseman's campaign.

The city has been using the Cairns model since 2010, when the Fire Department switched from "Philadelphia-style" to "New York-style" headgear.

Fire Chief Jim Large has said firefighters haven't complained to him about the issue. And none of the firefighters are suing the city over the helmets. Instead, they are going after the manufacturer, Pennsylvania-based Mine Safety Appliance, and distributor Ten-8 Fire Equipment Inc., based in Bradenton.

City spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor's approach to the issue is straightforward.

The Fire Department periodically buys new helmets for its new recruits and for those whose helmet is damaged or more than 10 years old.

The city recently selected a new, less costly vendor that produces a similar helmet as what is used now, Kirby said.

King said replacing the helmets has been on the mayor's mind for a while. Kirby said Kriseman likes the idea of "resetting the 10-year clock."

"The mayor's going to find resources to replace them all," Kirby said.

Officials could still decide, however, to stretch out the purchase of new helmets, Kirby said.

Magazine said he's focused on his cases and had no idea the mayor was thinking about a complete overhaul. This summer, he expects to begin taking depositions in Crowell's case.

Magazine said he's not sure how Kriseman's potential equipment overhaul would affect the legal claims.

"It's a subsequent remedial measure," Magazine said of Kriseman's idea. "I don't know how much of anything it'll bolster my case. But I just think it's the right thing to do."

Magazine said he's getting calls from other firefighters, local and from around the country, about the helmet. He predicted hundreds may file similar claims, though his are the only ones right now.

"Everyone knows these helmets are bad, and they're hurting guys," Magazine said.

Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow@cornandpotatoes.