The Respiratory Protection Equipment Technical Committee (TC) of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is in the final stages of developing an updated performance standard for open-circuit self-contained breathing apparatus used by emergency responders.

At their meeting on March 28-31, 2006, the NFPA TC addressed more than 200 comments submitted during the public comment period for this standard, NFPA 1981, Open Circuit Self Contained Breathing Apparatus Emergency Services, 2007 Edition. The result of the TC meeting will be the publishing of a Report on Comments (ROC) which reflects the TC’s response to how it addressed each comment submitted on proposed revisions or changes to the SCBA proposal.

The TC’s combined efforts, which includes emergency services personnel, federal agencies, manufacturers and other interested parties, should result in a final standard that is expected to be published in February 2007. Before final publication, the updated standard will first need to be approved by the NFPA membership and its Standards Council.

Standard’s scope

The scope of NFPA 1981 specifies the minimum performance requirements for the design, performance, testing and certification of SCBA and combination SCBA and supplied air respirators (SAR) for emergency services personnel. The standard establishes minimum levels of protection for emergency services personnel from atmospheres that are categorized as immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH). SCBAs are used in fire fighting where ambient oxygen is minimal and in toxic chemical environments.

The first edition of the NFPA 1981 performance standard for SCBAs used in the fire service was issued by NFPA in 1981, and since then it has undergone six revisions to address the needs of the emergency services industry, allow for advances in technology and improve accuracy in testing.

Some of the changes have included: mandatory third-party certification of SCBA, quality assurance requirements for the manufacturer, heat and flame testing of the entire apparatus, facepiece lens abrasion, communications performance requirements, redundant end-of-service-time indicators (EOSTI), heads-up displays (HUD) providing visual information to the wearer, and rapid intervention crew/company universal air connection system (RIC UAC) allowing emergency replenishment of breathing air to the SCBA.

Compliance requirements

To comply with NFPA 1981, an SCBA must first be tested and certified by NIOSH in accordance with NIOSH 42 CFR Part 84. Additionally, the NFPA standard requires that all SCBA be certified by a third-party certification organization that meets extensive requirements including accreditation for personal protective equipment in accordance with ISO Guide 65, General requirements for bodies operating product certification systems. The Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) currently certifies more than 50 different configurations of SCBA as being compliant with the 2002 edition of NFPA 1981. The certification process includes requirements for the certification program, inspection and testing, recertification, manufacturers’ quality assurance program, manufacturers’ investigation of complaints and returns, and manufacturer’s safety alert and product recall systems. SEI oversees the entire certification process and has contracted with Intertek of Cortland, N.Y., to review SCBA product labels and user information, confirm the SCBA meets design requirements, and conduct performance testing.

Manufacturers submit to SEI an extensive submittal application providing details on the following SCBA component assemblies: 1) 1st and 2nd stage regulator assemblies; 2) facepieces; 3) back frames; 4) heads up displays (HUD’s); and 5) pressure hoses and gauges.

Initial certification testing is conducted on 15 identical SCBAs and sample materials selected from the manufacturer’s production lot. For compliance with NFPA 1981, the SCBA and sample material must pass tests such as:
  • Air flow performance
  • Fabric and thread heat resistance
  • Environmental temperature
  • Accelerated corrosion resistance
  • Vibration resistance
  • Particulate resistance
  • Fabric flame resistance
  • Facepiece lens abrasion resistance
  • Communications performance
  • Heat and Flame resistance performance
  • Facepiece carbon dioxide content performance
  • End-of-service-time indicator (EOSTI) performance
  • Heads up display (HUD) performance
  • RIC UAC performance

Major revisions

Some of the major revisions to the standard include:
  • Addition of breathing air cylinder and valve assembly retention performance test — a test to determine movement of the cylinder within the back frame, it allows a maximum of one-inch movement from the cylinder’s original position;
  • Addition of cylinder connections and accessibility test — a test to evaluate the accessibility of the CGA hand wheel and RIC/UAC connection by a user wearing a size extra-large NFPA 1971 compliant glove;
  • Addition of immersion leakage performance — a test to evaluate water leakage and the functionality of electronic components after being subjected to six cycles of heating at 350ËšF for ten minutes followed by submersion in water at 4.9 feet for 15 minutes;
  • Revision to existing communications performance test — a more stringent test which will result in greater communication capability.

What about interchangeability?

The issue of “interchangeability of cylinders” was extensively debated at several meetings of the TC. This is a complex issue covering the interchanging by fire departments of cylinders between different SCBA manufacturers. TC developed appropriate testing requirements for the draft NFPA 1981 standard where the cylinder and valve assemblies were also CBRN approved by NIOSH. By default, the inclusion of interchangeable cylinders in the NFPA 1981 standard would also mandate that all NFPA certified SCBAs also be NIOSH CBRN approved. At the end of the meeting, the draft of NFPA 1981 moved forward without interchangeable cylinders and without a mandate for CBRN for all NFPA-certified SCBA. While most of the work has been completed on the revision to the NFPA 1981 standard, it’s possible there could be additional changes to the standard. Actions could occur at the NFPA annual meeting where the membership must act on a previously filed Notice of Intent to Make a Motion, which, if approved, could amend the standard. NFPA standards allow for a period of time for the industry to transition to the revised standard. The third-party certification organization is tasked with this transition, and also is an important means of ensuring the quality of products.

To be certain that an item is properly certified and labeled, NFPA recommends that purchasers require appropriate evidence of certification for the specific product and model from the manufacturer before purchasing. Purchasers should also contact the certification organization and request copies of the list of certified products to the appropriate NFPA standard. This listing is a requirement of third-party certification by the NFPA standard.

Pat Gleason is president and Steve Sanders is technical director, respectively, of the Safety Equipment Institute in McLean, Va.; (703) 442-5732; fax (703) 442-5756.