When I first got into the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) business over 29 years ago, about the only decision a customer had to make was whether to buy an SCBA with or without a carrying case.

Now, with the proliferation of options (facepiece sizes, facepiece colors, nose cup sizes, types of head harnesses, buddy breathers, supplied air attachments, supplied air couplings, chest straps, neck straps, D-rings to carry tools, protective cylinder sleeves, emergency escape canisters, even customized cylinders with the user’s logo on them) — and especially with the advent of electronics in SCBAs — the choices can be overwhelming. It seems there are 20 billion ways one manufacturer can configure SCBAs!

Plugged-in generation

Two things have occurred over the years to spur this expansion. First, SCBA manufacturers learned that to be successful in a highly competitive marketplace, they had to start listening to the customer. They began to move from being engineering-driven to marketing-driven. Rather than having the engineering department develop a product and tell the marketing department, “OK, now try to convince the customer they need this,” companies instead realized that the way to succeed was to have the customer tell them what they needed — and then develop a product that met those needs. This results in offering customers many choices, because different customers have different needs.

Second, there was a sea change in how the market views technology. As recently as 15 years ago, many SCBA users in both the fire service and in general industry were skeptical about anything that required batteries. This was especially true when the battery had something to do with the essential life support function. Trust one’s life to a battery? No way!

Today a whole new generation of users has a different set of priorities, and most importantly, is not intimidated by electronics, which most new users have grown up with on a daily basis. They carry multiple cell phones that send emails and take pictures; they wear digital watches that receive signals from the atomic clock in Fort Collins, Colo., to retain accuracy to a millionth of a second; they use fax machines in their cars; they press one button built into their car to open the garage door, another button to turn off their home security system, and a third button to turn on their surround-sound home stereo system before they walk in the door! They own multiple computer systems and carry thousands of songs in tiny iPods. They are a plugged-in generation.

These people are telling manufacturers, “Come on — this is the 21st century. We want SCBAs to incorporate anything that will make our jobs easier and safer, and we want as much information as we can get about the environment around us and about how our SCBAs are functioning.”

What’s NFPA say?

In municipal and industrial firefighting, users don’t really have a choice; the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has standards that mandate electronics. NFPA 1500 requires the use of PASS (Personal Alert Safety Systems) devices — devices that sense lack of motion and generate visual displays and audible alarms when the SCBA user is motionless for a certain period of time. And just as importantly, NFPA 1981 requires the incorporation of a Heads-Up Display (HUD) — a visual display in, on or in close proximity to the facepiece, providing the user with the same information normally provided by a chest-mounted pressure gauge, plus a 50 percent low-air visual alarm.

While NFPA standards are advisory and do not carry the force of law, legal exposure incurred by not using SCBAs that meet what are considered the highest performance standards available makes ignoring NFPA standards risky.

Far from creating controversy by forcing the market to buy something it doesn’t need or want, the requirements of these standards simply reflect market demand. Once the market indicated it would not just accept electronics, but in fact would embrace them, the floodgates opened. SCBA manufacturers now leapfrog each other each year to be the first one out with the neatest new electronic gadget (see "SCBA electronics" sidebar).

Looking ahead

The future is even better. Look for wireless communication systems (current ones require a radio interface cable joining the facepiece to the portable radio; those cables would disappear); Bluetooth-based “team” communication systems; digital HUDs that can provide air time remaining in minutes, based on the user’s work rate; and integrated accountability systems. These are just a few of the possibilities in the near future. In the long run, the limits to electronic SCBA improvements are the limits of one’s imagination.

Some day fully electronic or electromechanical regulators could be developed. While the technology to incorporate electronic pressure reduction components already exists, the market has not yet indicated that it is ready to trust electronics to that extent.

Thermal imaging cameras, frequently used to help find victims in structural fires, are currently handheld devices, although a few helmet-mounted versions are offered. Some day one might see small flip-down thermal imaging screens built into SCBA facepieces. Again, the technology is already available, but it isn’t economically feasible yet to build them into SCBAs.

Some trade-offs

While exciting electronic SCBA products exist today, and there are even more coming over the horizon, all is not perfect. There are trade-offs. Since electronic components in a mobile device like an SCBA are powered by batteries, power consumption — and therefore frequency of battery replacement — is an ongoing issue. New ways of optimizing power requirements are necessary to eliminate the perception some SCBA users have that they’re constantly replacing batteries.

Electronic components also need to be ruggedized to work effectively in the extreme conditions in which SCBAs are commonly used. SCBAs are subjected to high heat and direct flame, as well as extremely cold temperatures. They get banged around. They are exposed to a wide range of chemicals. The electronics in an SCBA have to perform at the same level as its mechanical components.

Also, since SCBAs may possibly be used in combustible environments, it is important for them to be intrinsically safe; in fact, intrinsic safety certification is required in order to obtain NFPA compliance certification. However, this means that users cannot do electronic repairs; any modification to intrinsically safe components voids certification. While virtually all other SCBA components may be repaired in the field with proper training, electronic components may only be repaired by the SCBA manufacturer.

Electronics’ benefits

Most people are gladly willing to live with these trade-offs in order to reap the benefits electronics bring. SCBAs today are not only lighter, smaller and more comfortable, they also serve as a platform to provide potentially life-saving information. SCBA users have more of a chance than ever before to survive in atmospheres that are immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH).

And they can still buy SCBAs with or without a carrying case.

SIDEBAR: SCBA electronics

Some of today’s available options:

  • PASS devices (with optional heat alarms)
  • Heads-Up Displays (both hard-wired and wireless)
  • Voice amplifiers
  • Radio communication systems
  • Ultrasonic locating systems
  • Telemetry to transmit user status information to a base station.