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Plan now for a safer future: why the air in your SCBA matters

Compressed air testing should be in every fire department's budget.


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Plan now for a safer future: why the air in your SCBA matters

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Sponsored by Trace Analytics, LLC

By FireRescue1.com Brand Focus Staff

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While many people apply this axiom to personal health, Franklin was talking about fire safety in the city of Philadelphia. Considering that firefighter health and safety have become a top priority within the fire service, Franklin’s words carry significant weight. This is especially true when it comes to protecting firefighters from contaminants in the air they breathe.

SCBA filled with unregulated or irregularly tested compressed breathing air can contain contaminants that pose significant risks. (image/iStock)
SCBA filled with unregulated or irregularly tested compressed breathing air can contain contaminants that pose significant risks. (image/iStock)

Because firefighters respond to a variety of incidents – from structure or brush fires to hazmat spills or confined space rescues – exposure to harmful gases, particulates, and other toxins is a common risk. That is why they depend upon their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to always deliver safe, uncontaminated air.

To ensure breathing air is safe, NFPA 1989 requires quarterly testing by an accredited laboratory, such as Trace Analytics. An SCBA filled with unregulated or irregularly tested compressed breathing air can contain contaminants that pose significant risks, including:

These and other contaminants can enter the compressed breathing air system through the compressor, the compressor’s intake, or in some instances, saturated or damaged filters.

Senior air respiratory technician Steven Shuksta with Phoenix Fire Department understands that the contaminants firefighters are exposed to as well as through unregulated breathing air can have serious health consequences. That’s why he believes regular testing is a critical life-safety measure for all departments.

“You cannot put a price tag on human life and safety. As safety professionals we need to look out for our members,” he says. “Safety is our number one priority.”

Although NFPA 1989 requires quarterly testing, Phoenix Fire Department and many others around the country test more frequently. This ensures the system is operating at optimal levels, identifies any failures, and safeguards the firefighters.

“An hour of my time every two months to test our system and make sure our firefighters are safe is worth it. They’re putting their lives on the line day in and out. I want to make sure they can feel safe about doing their jobs,” Shuksta explained.

NFPA 1989 also states testing should be conducted if contamination is suspected or if any alterations, maintenance, repairs, or relocation of the system occur. Additionally, air samples must be tested before and after a new air purification filter is installed.

Proactive testing reduces health and safety risks to firefighters while demonstrating fiscal responsibility to members and leadership by keeping all equipment in proper working order. This also decreases the likelihood of costly equipment repairs and replacements. In particular, water vapor and total volatile hydrocarbon content failures can be an indication that you need to change your maintenance schedule. Irregular testing and maintenance can result in expensive repairs down the road.

As Shuksta explained, if you discover a problem, resolving it quickly is essential. “We’ve had systems that we’ve sent for testing and have failed, but we take care of this right away. If I see a failed test, I bleed down the system, change the filters, do another retest and send it off,” he said.

With a simple 10-minute test by an accredited laboratory, a department can determine if their equipment is operating properly. This saves time and money in the long run. Testing at least quarterly may allow fire departments to take advantage of discounts, resulting in further cost savings.

For Shuksta and the members of Phoenix Fire Department, Ben Franklin’s words ring true. Frequent breathing air testing can prevent risks to their health and safety, which is priceless.

“I want to be sure every firefighter goes home after every shift and lives a long healthy life,” said Shuksta. “That’s why I do what I do.”

To ensure the safety and well-being of your firefighters, test your compressed breathing air system quarterly by an accredited laboratory, such as Trace Analytics, a leader in compressed air laboratory testing since 1989.

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