D.C. Fire Chief Theodore Coleman said yesterday that the department will spend about $1.2 million over the next two years to replace air masks that rank-and-file firefighters have called antiquated and dangerous.

Though funds have been appropriated by Congress every fiscal year since 1983, Coleman said the District's financial problems prevented the department from securing the funds earlier.

However, he said, "the money is available now" for a "complete mask system by the end of next year," including new one-hour masks to replace 30-minute models, personnel to repair them, and a truck to transport extra air bottles and back-up masks to fire scenes.

The 30-minute masks used by most D.C. firefighters have been the subject of longstanding complaint. The International Association of Firefighters, Local 36, has pushed hard for replacement funds in testimony before Congress. And Coleman has faced tough questioning on the Hill about why the department has been slow buying one-hour masks despite congressional appropriations to do so.

Firefighters have said the 30-minute masks are insufficient for fighting fires in Metro tunnels and high-rise buildings. They said 25 firefighters had to be hospitalized for smoke inhalation during a four-alarm fire on the ninth floor of the U.S. Postal Service Headquarters last October because their air masks ran out. The issue came to light again Tuesday when four firefighters suffered smoke inhalation in a fire on 30th Street NW, and some firefighters complained that their masks broke down or ran out of air.

Yesterday, Coleman said purchasing new masks is a "top priority."

"One of my main priorities is protection -- not only for the citizens of the city but for my firefighters," who he called "the best in the world, bar none."

In a wide-ranging news conference, Coleman also said that he has approved an affirmative-action plan for the department and plans to fill 114 vacant firefighting positions and 57 ambulance positions "by the end of the year."