Two months ago, a scuba diver 60 feet beneath the surface of Puget Sound suddenly had trouble breathing. Water was spraying into his air intake. Well trained, he avoided panic and quickly made what divers call a "controlled ascent."
Although the diver suffered only a annoyance, the incident set off considerable consternation in the Santa Ana, Calif., headquarters of U.S. Divers & Co., a large scuba equipment manufacturer that had produced the defective equipment.
Company officers started a crash study to determine what had happened, and ultimately instituted a nationwide recall that they say is costing the company a quarter of million dollars.
"We sell life-support equipment, and we had to move fast," said the company's new products manager, Thomas Cetta. "We looked at it and we said, 'Oh God, look at what it will cost' . . . (But) in this company all the employees dive, so you look at it: If your own son were out there, could you morally permit it? The answer was no."
In the vast plenty of American life, product recalls are now commonplace. Newspapers regularly run lists of them. Government agencies monitor them with a zeal that often inspires fear in businessmen. "You can be fined," said one company executive. "(The government) can very quickly turn your factory into a bean field."
Automobiles provide the most stunning example of this modern economic phenomenon. Sixty million of them - equivalent to nearly half the nation's 140 million motor vehicles - have been recalled at one time or another, and 12 million may be recalled this year alone, according to Irv Chor, a consumer affairs specialist with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"We had, like, 4 million in the last day," said Chor, referring to recalls made public earlier this week of cars, motocycles and trucks manufactured by Chrysler, Honda and Toyota.
Recalls of other products are also extensive in five years of operation, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an independent commission created by Congress, has been involved in the recall of 7 million individual items representing 530 separate products, an official said. Other federal agencies regulate food, drugs, medical supplies, airplanes, guns and tobacco, among other things.
All of this has caused an elaborate interweaving of tensions among manufacturers, retailers, consumers and the government that appears to have become a permanent part of American life. This is the story of the scuba gear recall and four others - all listed in a recent installment of The Washington Post's regular "Recalls" column.
"I think U.S. Divers is doing the right thing," said Dennis Boring, a clerk in an Oxon Hill diving shop, American Water Sports, that carries the regulators."So far I don't know of the anyone dying from any equipment malfunction from (any) manufacturer."
A potentially defective clamp on each regulator is to be replaced with a more effective clamp by retailers or by U.S. Divers itself - all at the expense of the company.
Boring said his shop probably has about 25 regulators to recall. He said this is relatively easy because the shop keeps a card file of its customers, sales slips and - most useful of all - a copy of the warranty for each sale.
Telephone calls from the shop to customers so far have been successful, Boring said. Customers are usually surprised, but do not resist the request to bring their gear in, although, "A couple of people said they couldn't make it right away."
Cetta, the company man, said the recall was the first in 23 years of business for U.S. Divers, a subsidiary of Liquid Air of North America. U.S. U.S. Divers has gross annual sales of more than $45 million.
He said the company learned of the Puget Sound incident Oct. 22 and was running extensive tests by Oct. 25. Then telegrams was quickly sent to 2,000 retailers all over the country. The CPSC was notified. Letters were sent to every consumer who had filed a warranty card on the regulators with the company - about 25,000 of them, 8,000 of these by registered mail. A computer picked out those to receive the registered letters - including for instance, those who appeared to live in apartments and who therefore were more likely to move than those in houses.
FOLDING BABY STROLLERS. Description of hazard: Potentially defective locking devices could cause the stroller to unexpectedly collapse forward on the child, pinching arms or fingers. Numbers involved : 40,000.
Early in the fall, Donald Peebles, the marketing vice president of Gerico, Inc., a baby furniture company in Boulder, Colo., began noticing an unusual number of complaints about a single item that the company manufacturers - a fold-up baby stroller that is marketed in many stores nationwide as Gerry Carryfree, and by Sears Roebuck as Sears Stroll 'N' Fold.
There were no injury reports, but Peebles was concerned. Gerico is a relatively small company with $7 to $10 million in gross annual sales, and it couldn't afford lawsuits or the wrath of federal agencies. Peebles took the problem to a committee inside the company that deals with such situations, and a laborious search began to determine what had happened and what to do about it.
That was in September, and it was Dec. 15 before a press release was finally issued and the recall formally began. It would have taken longer, Peebles said. If the company had not kept meticulous records and had not had a good deal of luck in its search.
The problem had narrowed down to a particular machine die in the factory that had apparently incorrectly cast a pair of the stroller's locking device. By examining strollers and company records, company officers were able to isolate the production period of Jan. 1 through Feb. 25, 1977, as the time when that die could possibly have produced defective strollers. The die itself had long since been rebuilt as a matter of course.
To cover the problem, therefore, the company recalled all strollers of the model number in question manufactured between those dates. This was possible because a date of manufacture is stamped on each stroller on a strap beneath the seat.
"It was lucky," said peebles. "If we had not kept records (and samples of stroller parts cast by each die), it could have been a very difficult time pinning it down."
The company developed a simple repair kit to send to buyers so that, using a screwdriver, a buyer can himself make the locking device effective even if its original parts should fail.
Additionally, consumers can send their strollers direct to the company for repair, and Peebles said 500 strollers have been received. Sears, one of the outlets, has a policy of replacing any recalled stroller or refunding a customer's money - and then dealing with the manufacturing to recover its own money, according to a Sears spokesman.
Although Gerice notified CPSC as required, Peebles emphasized his view that the program is one of voluntary repairs rather than a "recall" program. He said that only 1% of the 500 strollers turned in so far have actually proved to be defective.
"We may have overeacted," he said, "but the way that law is written we couldn't afford to take that chance. Being a small manufacturer . . the fines that can be imposed (are high for us)."
There is a major problem with recalls of baby strollers and most other consumer items. Records of the purchasers are rarely kept so it is hard to locate them.
Peebles said that press releases are sent out but that the media often do not reproduce them in sufficient detail to be useful.
All of this causes confusion even among business people. During a visit to the northwest Washington Sears store on Wisconsin Avenue last week, a saleswoman pointed to a stroller selling for $24.99 and said it was "the one being recalled." At the same time in another section of the store a recall notice was posted - but it had the wrong serial number. The day after a reporter's visit, the stroller in question had been removed from display.
However, Earnie Arms, national news director of Sears, said it was all a mistake. He said the saleswoman had been wrong, that none of the recalled strollers had even been shipped to that particular store, and that the stroller had probably been removed from display because, "Somebody got scared."
Arms said other Sears stores have about 3,500 of the recalled strollers. He said the company will replace the strollers or return money to customers when they can be located.
The effort to locate them will include company bulletins and an effort to insure that media carry accurate stories about the recall, he said. Sometimes Sears runs advertisements calling attention to recalls.
MACK TRUCKS. Description of hazard: the welds holding the rear axle spring insulator bracket to the axle may not hold, leading to loss of vehicle control. Numbers involved: 7,400
"Nothing is built like a Mack Truck," says the company advertising. With this tradition in mind, company officers in Allentown, Pa., were naturally concerned early this fall when they received a report that a Mack Truck had unexpectedly started to go out of control somewhere on the nation's highways.
There had been no accident, but the company investigated, discovered the weld problem, nnotified the NHTSA, and began the recall . . . and at the same time, began another round of problems for Mack dealers all over the country Louis C (Reds) Fowler, the service manager at Washington Mack Trucks, Inc., in Bladensburg, explained some of them. In the first place, he said, it's not easy to get an independent trucker in off the highways - even for a few hours, and Fowler has recalls dating back in 1974 for which he is still trying to locate customers.
"We have to call the customers," said Fowler. "I've got to call 'em on the phone, beg 'em, plead 'em, anything to get 'em in here. It's human beings you're dealing with. You can't get too upset with 'em."
Fowler said with the current recall that "it might be six or seven months maybe a year" before he can get the independent truckers to come in. "He loses downtime. He loses that five hours he could have been in Philadelphia . . . It's not that they don't want to (come in). But if (they) can get the load off in one day, (they) make money. It makes a big difference."
Contributing to the reluctance of some truckers to come in, Fowler suggested, was a feeling that some of the recalls may not really be necessary. "We think some of the government officials ought to be a little better trained," he said. "Just because a gentlement holds an engineering degree doesn't mean he's ever worked on (a particular truck)."
NHTSA's Irv Chor, however, said there is seldom any engineering dispute over a particular defect. Rather, the disputes are legal ones over how a defect might affect safety. For example, he said, the agency once won a dispute with a car manufacturer that claimed a windshield wiper failure wasn't a safety hazard because it had not resulted in any accidents.
Chor said that almost all car recalls are "voluntary," although another NHTSA spokesman noted that often the voluntary effort follows a government investigation or other pressure.
Most recalls are undertaken without hesitation by companies once the problem is spotted, Chor said.
The companies notify NHTSA, send letters to all purchasers listed in their warranty records, and send to their retail outlets backup computer printouts listing vehicles and customers plus necessary parts and detailed instructions on how to make the needed repairs.
Fowler, the local service manager here, said all this cause "headaches" for him as he strives valiantly to keep pace with recalls that numbered 31 in 1974 alone, and that usually num-two to 12 annually.
He estimated that the most recent recall, involving the rear axle welds, will require up to 10 hours of labor for each trucks, for which the parent company will reimburse dealers. He thinks his dealership will have to repair about 100 of te 7,400 trucks involved.
"It could or could not cause an accident," said Fowler. "It's a fairly serious (recall)."
AMC 1978 GREMLINS. Descriptions of hazard: interference between the clutch linkage and the main instrument panel wiring harness may cause an electrical short and fire under the dash.Number involved: 2,0701.
MAZDA 1976 RX-3s. Description of hazard: leak from the fuel system may occur due to improper sealing of two plugs on the carburetor, leading too possible engine fire. Numbers involved : 2,000.
These are tiny as car recalls go, but nevertheless troublesome for those involved in them.
"Some plugs are not sealed right," said Michael Chambers, a Rockville resident who owns one of the recalled cars. "(The dealership) told me it takes a second for them to put a little gunk in there and seal it up."
But Chambers, himself the assistant manager of an auto brake alignment nad parts store, said he isn't fooled by this. He said he knows he will have to leave his car all day at the dealership if he takes it there.
Chambers said he had one earlier recall with the same car, involving a gas tank that might leak if the car flipepd and thus increasing the possibility of a fire after an accident. He waited to take his car into the dealer until his next warranty check was due - in order to avoid an extra visit to the dealer.
Dealers also have problems.
"After you notify customers you have a hell of a time getting the customer to come in," said Peter Zourdos, president of Courtesy AMC-Jeep in Bethesda. "He sayd, "My car's running all right and I don't want you to touch it."
Or customers "try to relate (a recall situation) to something else there's wrong with their car. Good Lord. We sit here and get phone calls and we don't know what they're talking about . . ."