Fire captains and incident commanders are typically savvy about their department’s fleet of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). That’s because SCBAs are critical, life-saving gear for all first responders on fire grounds, at chemical spills, in mechanical rooms, and in confined space rescues.

But staying current on new regulatory requirements and best practices – let alone new technology developments in advanced wireless communications, connectivity and the ergonomics of lightweight, highly maneuverable SCBAs – can be daunting.  The reality is that today’s SCBA technology can lead to improved safety and bottom-line health for first responders.

Testing SCBAs for fitness

At a minimum, an SCBA must be approved by NIOSH and meet NFPA requirements. The NFPA 1852 standard on selection, care and maintenance of SCBAs provides comprehensive guidance.

But regular maintenance and service checks of all equipment is a must, and should be assigned to an individual trained specifically for the role. It should never be “once and done” training, said Gary Smith, a retired fire chief who managed the SCBA program and fire operations for three fire departments in central California. Smith now serves as executive director for the Ammonia Safety Training Institute, which trains first responders on proper SCBA use and maintenance.

Several categories of talent are needed for different levels of training, including one for basic operation and another for specifying needs and evaluating options, such as equipment choices, communications and other considerations.

SCBAs require daily, weekly and monthly service checks depending on frequency of use. Fit testing of each respiratory protection device is critical because newer SCBAs can accommodate different sizes of facepieces. Some designs of SCBA offer a choice not only of facepiece size but also nose cup size so users can select facepiece size and nose cup size for optimum fit. A properly sized and fitted SCBA mask can help ensure a higher level of performance in toxic atmospheres.

House standards

Establishing house standards and adhering to them also can help reduce costs. Of course, each department has its own unique needs. For a typical station with a cascade system, this means that an air system or storage vessels and cylinders must be brought onsite. A gas monitoring program for hydrocarbons and toxic gases will need to be included in the monitoring program. The person who oversees the fleet of SCBAs must log regular air readings, monitor air delivery, volume levels and temperature, and ensure that enough air supply is always made available. All maintenance, repair, and hydrostatic test results must be documented and reviewed routinely to assure air supply, air bottle, SCBA regulator, framework, and harness strap conditions meet the local and national safety standards, e.g. NFPA 1951 and NFPA 1852.

Many industrial safety managers farm out these functions, but are still accountable for the performance of their SCBAs in the field. To meet OSHA criteria for field use, an SCBA must always be at least 90 percent full at the outset of a response to an incident.

Ready for quick response

Daily checks will assure that problems with the SCBA ensemble, including the harness and other elements, are corrected immediately. If used for emergency operations and rescue it is critical that the SCBA is always in a working order should an emergency situation arise. This includes assuring the unit must never be lower than 90 percent full at the outset of a response to an incident. Small leaks at valve connections or around facepieces will result in taking the SCBA off-line for repair and testing prior to return to service. The specifications for use of an SCBA ensemble must also be clearly understood by the hazmat responders. For example, an SCBA regulator can be compromised by extreme cold; moisture from breathing into the unit regulator can contribute to regulator freeze, resulting in a bypass of air supply and a fast reduction of air supply.

Evaluating new options

When should you replace an SCBA? While municipal fire departments often follow a replacement calendar such as every five to eight years, industrial safety officers may operate on a 10-to-15-year replacement cycle, particularly if their SCBAs are used less frequently. With longer replacement cycles, however, parts replacement can become difficult, and older SCBAs can degrade even when not used.

Older equipment may be more prone to failure. While testing the fit of respiratory protection devices it is not uncommon for SCBA facemasks to fail the fit test procedures. Leaks at the valve connection or pinhole leaks in the facepiece, though rare, are a dangerous risk when they expose the wearer to inhalation of deadly gases or vapors. There is no such thing as a “fit and forget” cycle for the life of SCBAs.

Newer SCBAs have several advantages over previous models that may improve the safety and endurance of first responders.

Biometric sensors

For example, a variety of additional safeguards are built into the new equipment. The SCBAs have an alarm that warns the user when air in the SCBA cylinder is getting low, so that the user knows when to replace the air cylinder. A motion alarm signals when a firefighter may be in trouble, such as a man-down situation, by activating whenever its wearer fails to move for more than thirty seconds. Biometric sensors monitor the wearer’s heat and body temperature, alarming at unsafe temperatures within the device. Newer SCBAs are equipped with motion alarms in both the front and back PASS, or Personal Alert Safety System, an advantage that also helps to reduce false alarms.

Wireless connectivity allows a greater exchange of real-time information between the wearer and the safety officer. For example, it enables remote visualization of the response scene on computer software in a command center and bi-directional communications to increase safety and efficiency.

New SCBAs are also much more ergonomically friendly than older models, providing greater mobility while minimizing body stress on the wearer. The facepieces on the new SCBAs provide the user with a wider field of view. Manufacturers are developing SCBAs with more lightweight, high-performance materials and have engineered the assembly to distribute weight more evenly, away from the back and shoulders. New swivel and pivot mechanisms provide freer movement of the responder in tight situations. The whole focus is on creating SCBAs that allow responders to focus energy on the incident, not the equipment. And that, in turn will help the safety officers get more ROI from the SCBA investment.