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Why not using SCBA will kill firefighters

SCBA is the most important piece of PPE, and the reasons for not using it are no longer valid

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Photo/U.S. Navy by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Bryan Reckard

One of the greatest innovations in the fire service is the self-contained breathing apparatus. It has allowed firefighters to be more effective while providing a high level of respiratory protection.

We are able to gain deeper access into burning structures to perform rescue functions, locate and suppress the fire and prevent further property damage. It has become a basic piece of our equipment.

Out of everything that we wear, the SCBA provides the highest level of protection. The human body has many systems that work together to keep us functioning and living.

The respiratory system is both the biggest system and the easiest to compromise. One quick breath can make the difference between life and death. What we inhale affects the whole body.

We cannot always see the contaminants that are present within the environment that will harm us. This is why we must always wear an SCBA whenever we are in any kind of immediately dangerous to life and health environment.

No excuses

Yet we still have firefighters responding to different types of calls where an IDLH environment is present who not wearing their SCBA. It is not because of a lack of availability of SCBAs. It is not because of SCBA performance being substandard as far as operation; nor is it because of cost to use it.

Every fire department within the North American continent has access to an adequate amount of SCBAs. There was a time when this wasn’t the case — they were either absent or in short supply. But through with health and safety legislation, they have become a common fixture on apparatus.

SCBAs are tested to such rigorous and extreme levels that we would not be able to survive the conditions if we were to be caught in them: the SCBA would still function as it is intended to.

A third-party, NIOSH, conducts SCBA testing to ensure their performance meets or exceeds NFPA and industry standards. Every SCBA unit must meet NIOSH approval and be labeled as such.

Cheap to use

SCBAs are expensive to purchase and maintain, but they are relatively cheap to use. The only commodity used when in full operation is breathing air and refilling the tanks with regular breathing air is very inexpensive.

The units also have personal safety alarms and heads-up displays that require batteries to operate — often AA batteries. These, too, are inexpensive.

This one piece of equipment is so vital that when it is missing or not being used, it compromises firefighter safety and effectiveness. And this creates many dominoes for that firefighter and for the fireground that eventually handicaps both.

This article, originally published March 24, 2014, has been updated

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.