Union officials say the D.C. Fire Department unit assigned to the White House lacks the proper equipment to save the president in the event of a helicopter accident, but a department spokesman said the equipment, while not new when obtained, is adequate.

Meanwhile, the Fire Department has already been investigating complaints to determine if any of the equipment should be replaced or improved, the department spokesman said.

The equipment belongs to Engine 13 and Truck 10 at 450 Sixth St. SW, the company responsible for the safety and rescue of the first family. Mark Tasciotti, union representative for that unit, said that when he joined the unit two years ago firefighters were complaining about their proximity suits, uniforms that deflect heat and allow wearers to get close to a fire.

But Capt. Theodore O. Holmes, a department spokesman, said, "In no way would the chief {of the department} jeopardize the safety and security of the first family, and he feels just as strongly about the firefighters that come under his command.

"It is our position that the suits currently being used, while they aren't new, have nothing wrong that would prohibit firefighters from using them," said Holmes.

"There has never been an instance when the suits were actually used . . . ," said Tasciotti. "This department seems to be crisis-oriented. The suits are in a deplorable state, with cracks and rips and tears."

The unit assigned to the White House is also without entry suits, which protect firefighters walking through fire, said Ken Cox, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 36.

"The fire chief himself was at a union meeting April 13 and addressed the problem face to face with the entire membership," Cox said.

A copy of minutes from an April 13 union meeting stated that Chief Theodore R. Coleman was present when someone noted that "a critical safety problem exists . . . with the proximity suits . . . . " The minutes said, "{Assistant} Chief {Howard} Dixon has assured the union action will be taken."

Neither Dixon nor Coleman was available for comment yesterday. Holmes said, "The fire chief has set in motion a process to look at the equipment. As soon as decisions have been made as to what equipment we will be getting and what the replacement cycle should be, we will select the type of gear."

Meanwhile, Tasciotti said that the department's safety officer denied firefighters' request for permission to wear regular firefighting gear because the 17 proximity suits were in such bad shape.

Holmes said he was not aware of a specific request. "The Navy had indicated to us, through its firefighters personnel, that equipment used to fight regular structural fires should be adequate for the type of helicopter in question."

The union representative said the department's safety officer inspected the suits about four months ago and that someone later "called the firehouse once to find out how many suits were already on hand."

"It's hard on the men because someone else's life is entrusted to their hands and they know the suits are defective," said Tasciotti.