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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

O'Fallon, Mo., Firefighters Are Sleeping on Air

BY MARK SCHLINKMANN > 636-255-7203 | Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 12:15 am

Firefighters are sleeping well in the O'Fallon Fire Protection District — each on his own Select Comfort Sleep Number extra-long twin bed.

In an attempt to reduce back strain among firefighters, the district recently bought 51 air-adjustable mattresses for its five firehouses.

"We don't generally get to sleep for very long because we get up quite a bit in the middle of the night, but now the sleep that we get is much more comfortable," said Capt. Mike Alcorn, a 24-year veteran of the district.

The new beds cost $36,874 — or $723 each. That is $69 less each than the bid by rival air-adjustable company Verlo Mattress Factory Stores, but $454 more than an "entry-level" extra-long Verlo mattress without air controls.

Fred Keen, a salesman at Verlo's St. Charles store, said the entry-level model is designed for firefighters and has been bought by several other area departments in recent years. They have a heavier-than-usual inner spring, he said.

O'Fallon district officials said the board sought bids only for air-adjustable mattresses on the recommendation of a committee of employees and supervisors who studied the issue. The old beds were 15 to 20 years old and were worn out, they said.

"The long-term hope is it improves our wellness factor," said Bob Cerrano, the district's chief financial officer. "We have had a rash of back strains. You don't want these guys stiffening up and getting back injuries."

Still, A.C. Dienoff, an unsuccessful candidate for the fire district board this month, criticized the purchase.

Dienoff said he understood why new mattresses were needed but questioned buying more expensive models with air-adjustable controls. 

He also contended that the district could have gotten by with fewer new beds, because all 51 firefighters aren't on duty at the same time. District spokesman Scott Avery said the number was chosen "for sanitary reasons."

Outgoing District Board Chairman Dave Hinman defended the group's decision and said the research committee had done a good job.

"This is a bed that's going to have to last 10 to 15 years," he said.

Dienoff ran against Hinman in the election; both lost to a third candidate, Matt Gober.

The O'Fallon Fire Protection District has 51 paid firefighters. After four years, a district firefighter's base pay is $60,201. Last year district voters passed a $10.5 million bond issue to replace trucks and other equipment. The mattresses were not part of the bond issue; they came out of operating funds.

Sarah Reckard, a spokeswoman for Minnesota-based Select Comfort, said nearly 70 fire stations across the country have Sleep Number beds and the company has seen an increase in firehouse orders over the past year.

Reckard said that type of mattress is good for firefighters because it allows a sleeper to adjust the firmness. "No two sleepers — or firefighters — are alike," Reckard said in an email message.

A random check of 10 area fire departments found none with air-adjustable beds.

"We've never even discussed it," said Neil Svetanics, chief of the Lemay Fire Protection District in south St. Louis County for the past 10 years.

The St. Louis Fire Department also has standard mattresses, according to spokesman Lt. Dan Sutter.

Officials with the Mehlville, Affton, Metro West and Creve Coeur districts in St. Louis County and Wentzville, Cottleville and Lake Saint Louis districts in St. Charles County also said they do not have air-adjustable mattresses.

Capt. Rich Hilligardt of the Metro North Fire District in North County said air-adjustable beds "do sound nice" but that his department uses regular beds.

"I've got a bad back," he said. "My bed's fine. It doesn't bother me."

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