How to buy firefighter breathing apparatus

By Mike McKenna

There is probably no larger purchase or one filled with more life-saving importance than self-contained breathing apparatus. There are many good models on the market today, but the key is to find the brand, type, accessories, and service agreement that best suits your department needs. The purchasing of SCBA is an area where it is important to be an informed consumer and to practice patience.

Here are the main things to consider when selecting new SCBA.

Do your Needs Homework
Before you actually take delivery of any product samples or look at the individual SCBAs, decide what your needs are. It is best to send a few personnel to a trade show and have them look around at the various models of equipment available, bring back information and review and compare the information in-house before bringing in vendor participation. If budgets are tight and that is not possible, ask the local representative to deliver three or four copies of all literature related to what you are looking to purchase and then compare and contrast the equipment.

What is your department looking for? At the minimum, do not consider anything that is not NFPA 1981 Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services 2007 edition compliant. And ask about any upgrade plans for the next edition due in 2012.

Are your department needs limited to the complete SCBA and cylinders or do you need the SCBA face piece to also be a CBRN APR?

Does your fire department need compatibility with the neighboring fire departments or law enforcement agencies?

It is very advantageous to determine what your fire department's actual needs and requirements are before fully entering the selection process.

Avoid "Kitchen Table Evaluations"
Thinking that you know what you want before you have researched it is a recipe for disaster. It is important to have an open mind. Look at everything in a configuration that meets your needs. Decide what you must have and what you are willing to settle for. Tell the manufacturers what you believe you need in the SCBA pack, all related accessories and service and support. Tell the vendors what you need and want — do not let then tell you what they will supply.

Dig into Reality
Talk to the third-party certification organization, NIOSH, and inquire about any issues that any SCBA may have pending. These types of issues are not usually serious, but dealing with them may be time consuming or may delay implementation. Search the Web for blogs and Web sites for information and ideas and find out what is really going on in the market.

Talk to Users
Ask each of the manufacturers for five departments of similar size that they have served within the past year and ask also for five departments that they have lost to a competitor. It is important to be fair and contact each fire department and document and compare findings.

Know the Little Stuff First
Before you talk to the representatives of any company, have an idea what your fire department needs in a breathing apparatus. And, no matter what any manufacturer promises, it will take between one and two years for the fire department to become settled and at ease with the manufacturer.

What is the access to service and parts? This seems simple, but can be a very complicated process.

What about training of the personnel and the service and repair personnel? Does the manufacturer offer training and support to provide an on-site service and repair facility using your own staff?

What are parts availability and what, if any, is the parts discount to the fire department.

Prepare a Fair Evaluation
Once you know your fire department needs, you must conduct a fair evaluation with reproducible events. The evaluation should cover items such as ease of use, ease of doffing and donning, comfort in full structural turnouts, ability to reach overhead, etc. Try to develop events where the results are not subjective. Your fire department's physical agility test is a good place to start. Document your findings and present a complete and logical package.

  • Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or e-mail with your feedback.

Captain Mike McKenna has more than 31 years of professional fire service experience including 19 years as a fire captain and seven years as a fire district safety officer at the Sacramento, Calif., Metropolitan Fire District. He was also the respiratory and SCBA program manager for 10 years. Captain McKenna has been instructing Fire Technology at American River College since 2000. He has more than 16 years of fire service program management and problem solving and solution development. Captain McKenna has been involved with NFPA fire service standards development since 1988 and sits as a member of NFPA 1971 and NFPA 1801. He has published several articles on firefighter issues and has developed risk management solutions as a Fire Service Risk Management Consultant for Bragg & Associates of Roseville, Calif.

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