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4 major NFPA changes to SCBA

Changes to NFPA standards mean a functionality revamping for the next generation of SCBA

The standard, it is a changin’ — NFPA 1981: Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus for Emergency Services, that is.

The 2007 edition of 1981 was slated for revision in 2012, but didn’t hit the street until January 2013.

Why the delay?

The technical committee working on NFPA 1981’s revisions needed additional time to ensure the accuracy and validity of testing done by NFPA’s collaborative agencies — the NFPA Research Foundation, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety Health.

The committee’s extra review activity ensured that new tests for SCBA components were valid and that SCBA manufacturers would be able to comply with new requirements. Getting it right before publication was important to ensure that fire departments would not be spending precious dollars today on technology that wouldn’t work tomorrow.

Also, the revised NFPA 1981 comes with four pretty heady changes that will affect not only purchasing decisions, but also tactical fireground considerations for fire service leaders.

1. Low-air alarm
The NFPA 1981-2007 required the alarm to sound when 25 percent of the cylinder’s available air was left. The 2013 edition ups that requirement to 33 percent of the cylinder’s available air.

The 2013 edition is the first that specifies an EOSTI level for fire service SCBA. The 25 percent threshold commonly accepted for years by the fire service actually came from NIOSH.

And even NIOSH never had a hard and fast 25 percent; the NIOSH standard had always been a window of 20 percent to 25 percent of available air.

NFPA 1404: Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training, 2013 edition, contains several requirements for individual air management when using SCBA:

  1. The individual shall exit from an IDLH atmosphere before consumption of reserve air supply begins.
  2. The individual shall recognize that the low air alarm notification indicates that the member is consuming the reserve air supply.

The committee added the higher 33 percent threshold to NFPA 1981 to increase the reserve air supply available and be in line with the specifications of NFPA 1404. The major manufacturers of SCBA are saying that they can accomplish compliance for existing SCBA through firmware upgrades for electronic EOSTI and changing spring tension on audible alarms, or the low-air bell.

With all the discussions regarding air management in recent years, including whether or not 25 percent was enough of a reserve air supply, this is a step in the right direction.

2. Facepiece improvements
During its work, the committee became aware of several firefighter fatality incidents where thermal degradation of the facepiece lens was a factor. The committee members looked at what facepiece-lens requirements in NFPA 1981 had changed; they discovered that no changes had been made in the past 20 years.

So why were lens melting?

In 2012, UL released the results for its tests that compared fire behavior in legacy and modern homes. Those tests provided confirmation to what many of us have been saying for years: firefighters today are dealing with fuels, heat, flashover and chemicals that we’d never experienced before.

While the committee’s research indicated that there wasn’t a lens problem (from a standards perspective), the members felt that the lens standard had perhaps not kept pace with the changing fire environment.

NFPA requires the facepiece lens to be subjected to a test of radiant heat at 15 kW/m2. The previous lens testing specification focused on convected heat, prevalent in legacy home fires, rather than the impact of radiant heat present in homes with modern fuel loads.

The new test specifications also call for the entire SCBA assembly, mounted on a test manikin and breathing cylinder air, to be subjected to a 500-degree Fahrenheit oven test. This test helps determine whether the SCBA can survive a catastrophic event, like flashover, and still allow a firefighter to safely exit the building.

3. Voice intelligibility requirements
Verbal communication while using SCBA continues to be a challenge. Much of the previous testing efforts in other organizations have been done with real users.

While practical and easy to do, such research is very subjective so NFPA 1981 includes a new test, speech transmission index (STI). STI gives numerical values to sound and measures how a machine picks it up and receives it, so the evaluator can create a baseline that the SCBA must meet.

NFPA 1981 also includes a new requirement for all SCBA facepieces to have a mechanical speaking system. Electronically enhanced communication systems can be an accessory, but all units must have a mechanical one that works independent of any power source.

4. Emergency Breathing Safety Systems (EBSS)
NFPA 1981 finally provides legitimacy to EBSS — buddy breathers. Previous editions of NFPA 1981 did not include references for EBSS, and NIOSH has prohibited the use of buddy breathers since 1984. So while EBSS technically didn’t exist, the reality was that manufacturers were designing accessories that were ultimately used as buddy breathers and firefighters were using them as such.

The committee members considered if the original prohibition by NIOSH was based on firefighter behavior or lack of an acceptable technical solution. They concluded that the original prohibition was technical, not behavioral.

Among several of the technical challenges was the ability to have twice the volume of airflow — to ensure adequate airflow to both users. Once the SCBA manufacturers were able to demonstrate a viable solution for that issue, the committee felt it appropriate to give EBSS a seat at the table.

NIOSH lifted the prohibition on buddy breathers for structural firefighting only. As far as NFPA 1981 is concerned, EBSS will be considered an accessory — they’re not required — but if a department chooses to have them on their SCBA, they must perform to the new standard.

Now is a good time to get in contact with the manufacturer of your current SCBA to determine what needs to happen to bring your equipment into compliance with NFPA 1981. The sooner that conversation happens, the sooner you can put that information into budgeting and operational planning for your organization.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.

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