NISKAYUNA — Nearly 40 years later, the memory is still vivid for Ray Tannatta.
It was 1983, and Tannatta responded to a call with the Schenectady Fire Department. A man was trapped by a fire in a second-floor bathroom, underneath a wall-hung sink.
“He was still breathing,” Tannatta said during an interview in his Niskayuna home, “but he was gasping. By the time we got him out, it was too late.”
Tannatta, a licensed plumber as well as a firefighter, knew that if the man could have loosed the drain trap on the sink, he would’ve had a ready-made air supply at his disposal.
So, when he got home that night, Tannatta got to work.
“I made a trap that I connected with a garden hose,” he said, “just to make the concept.”
The concept evolved into the Highrise Lifeline, a system that allows people trapped by fire to connect a hose to a sink drain and breathe comfortably through a mask. Tannatta patented the invention three years later and a company in Ohio purchased the product to put it into the marketplace.
Despite receiving national — and international — attention, the company eventually went out of business without the Highrise Lifeline ever hitting the market.
For a while, there was nothing Tannatta could do, but about eight years ago, with rights issues sorted out, he decided to finally take matters back into his own hands.
“It’s too good of a product,” he said, “I couldn’t let it go.”
After a lot of time, money and labor spilled into reviving and redesigning the product, Tannatta is finally ready to get the Highrise Lifeline into the hands of people whose lives it could eventually save.
The product is available for sale online now at www.highriselifeline.com, and Tannatta said that by mid- to late-December, the first orders should be ready for distribution.
“This works. Somebody will live,” he said. “If one person lives after I put this on the market, it’s all worth it.”
When Tannatta developed the first Highrise Lifeline as a proof-of-concept, he knew he needed to find a way to demonstrate its life-saving potential.
So, he convinced both his fire chief and then-Schenectady Mayor Frank Duci to allow him to set up an exercise in the training tower of the firehouse. The tower was filled with smoke, and with a cameraman from WRGB-6 filming him, Tannatta connected his invention to the sink drain.
“I went in and breathed only out of that drain, and he filmed me for, like, 10 minutes,” Tannatta said. “And you would’ve lasted, maybe, three minutes [without it].”
Eventually, the full product was perfected and patented, and a deal was made for mass-production.
As part of the expected rollout, Tannatta’s invention got coverage in newspapers and magazines across the country and the globe. He even demonstrated the Highrise Lifeline on national TV as a guest on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.”
High-profile orders were placed — from a luxury hotel in California, to the Minnesota Vikings football team, to the Palace at Auburn Hills sports arena outside Detroit. Tannatta’s invention received endorsements from politicians and firefighters’ organizations, both locally and nationally.
“People wouldn’t write these letters unless they knew how important it was,” he said.
But, the Highrise Lifeline never made it to the masses as the company producing it ran into dire financial straits.
“They collected money after money,” Tannatta said, “and then they just burned it up and ran out of money. It was sad.”
But, after years of the project sitting idle, Tannatta re-entered the picture, this time vowing to do the work himself.
It took a lot of time and a lot of investment. Developing the drain attachment, a 3D-printed piece, cost an estimated $60,000. Tannatta had to find manufacturers that could supply the items he needed — collapsible plastic hosing, breathing masks, the flutter valve that makes the breathing system work — at a cost that would allow him to market the Highrise Lifeline at an affordable price.
Then came arranging for storage, assembly, distribution and marketing.
“It was a process,” he said. “One step at a time. . . . All these things are groundbreaking for me. It’s not exactly my business. I had to find out how to do all these things. It’s a little bit out of my wheelhouse, but I picked it up and I feel good about it.”
The Lifeline, which costs $39.99, includes a breathing mask, a 10-foot hose, a drain attachment, a plastic wrench that comes in two standard sizes to disconnect the drain, the drain attachment, instructions, a plastic locator card to slide under a door as an aid for firefighters and a lightweight carrying case. All together, the entire system is much smaller than Tannatta’s original 1980s design and weighs just 12 ounces.
Tannatta has arrangements to operate out of a warehouse space on Eastern Parkway once the product launches. That should come soon, as once Tannatta — who has battled cancer — gets past a medical procedure next week, he plans on starting to get units moving later this month.
As part of the rollout, he’ll be meeting with one of the biggest proponents of the project, state Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville. Tannatta said Tedisco has a bill in development that would make the Highrise Lifeline mandatory in all high-rise buildings in the state.
“They’re going to want to see it on the market first,” Tannatta said, “but I have everything ready.”
And after all that waiting and frustration, the endgame is immensely satisfying.
“I was discouraged for a long time,” Tannatta said, “then I thought, ‘You know what? The hell with this. I’m going to to do it.’ Somebody’s going to be trapped sometime, and they’re going to have this, and I’m going to feel good about that. At least it’s out there.”