Until about 20 years ago, the only decision a customer had to make was whether to buy an SCBA with or without a carrying case. Now, with the introduction of mechanical, ergonomic and convenience options — and especially with the advent of electronics in SCBAs — the choices can be overwhelming. The possible SCBA configurations can be endless.

What happened?
First, SCBA manufacturers realized they should start listening to the customer to be successful in today’s highly competitive market. They started to move from engineering-driven to market-driven products. An SCBA built around the desires and needs of end-users often results in an SCBA with many options.

Second, the market accepted advancements in technology. Twenty years ago, many SCBA users in industrial applications and in the fire service were skeptical about life support equipment requiring batteries.

Today, a whole new generation of users has a different set of priorities, and most importantly, this generation is not intimidated by electronics — they grew up with electronics as part of their everyday lives. This is a plugged-in generation. We now have cell phones that send e-mails, take pictures and connect to the Internet; portable GPS systems that guarantee no one will be lost, even without a paper map; and MP3 players the size of a credit card that carry thousands of songs and shoot video.

This technology-savvy generation tells manufacturers that SCBAs should incorporate anything that makes their jobs easier and safer. They want as much information as they can get about their environment and how their SCBA is functioning.

Going electronic
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has developed standards that mandate electronics to enhance the safety of the end-user. 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 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, any responsible company wants its equipment to meet the highest performance standards.

These standards simply reflect market demand for an SCBA that is safer for the end-user. Once the market indicated it would not just accept electronics, but in fact would embrace them, the floodgates opened. SCBA manufacturers now continue to develop electronics — even if not mandated by the NFPA — in a quest to make their SCBAs easier to use on the job.

Consider what’s available in SCBAs today:
  • Integrated PASS devices (with built-in data logging and with optional heat alarms)
  • Heads-up Displays (hard-wired or wireless; analog or digital)
  • Voice amplifiers
  • Tactical radio communication systems (both hard-wired and wireless)
  • “Team” radio communication systems
  • Firefighter locating systems (using either ultrasound or radio frequency)
  • Telemetry to transmit user status or accountability information to a base station
What’s next?
While current SCBA electronics are pretty sophisticated, there are even more possibilities in the future. Someday, 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. Also, thermal imagers, currently handheld or helmet-mounted devices, could conceivably be miniaturized and integrated into SCBA facepieces.

However, there are some challenges. Because electronic components in a mobile device like an SCBA are powered by batteries, power consumption — and therefore frequency of battery replacement — is an ongoing concern. Better ways of optimizing power requirements are necessary to address the perception of some SCBA customers that they must constantly replace batteries.

Electronic SCBA components in the past have sometimes fallen short of expectations for performance 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 continually get banged around. They can be exposed to a wide range of chemicals, especially in industrial use. The electronics in an SCBA have to perform at the same level as the unit’s mechanical components. New requirements in the 2007 editions of NFPA 1981 and NFPA 1982 have helped to “ruggedize” SCBA electronics, but more can be done.

Also, because 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 perform 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 usually be repaired only by the SCBA manufacturer.

Most users are 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).