FireRescue1 roundtable: SCBA game-changers and expert predictions

Future advances, purchasing tips and care and maintenance advice are all topics on the table during the SCBA discussion

With impending changes to NFPA standards regarding SCBA components, we brought together four experts in the field to talk about not only likely changes, but how to get the most from SCBA units.


Which component of SCBA is due for a game-changing breakthrough in technology, size, design, etc.?

Jeff Emery: The SCBA is beginning to play a key role in accountability on the fireground, serving as a data hub to provide firefighter status updates around air levels and alarms, and in helping incident command know who is on scene and where they are assigned. We can expect more advances in this area, as manual NIMS accountability processes become more automated and wireless data transmission capabilities and tracking technologies become more robust and reliable.

The other significant improvement will be in the area of fireground communications. Manufacturers are just now tapping into some of the significant advancements in speaker, circuitry and wireless capabilities that have emerged from the telecommunications industry over the past decade.

Meet the Experts

Jeff Emery is the global marketing manager for fire services at Scott Safety. In this role, Jeff is responsible for marketing, industry relations, and product management activities for Scott's fire segment.

Jeffrey O. and Grace G. Stull are president and vice president, respectively, of International Personnel Protection, Inc., which provides expertise on the design, evaluation, selection and use of personnel protective clothing, equipment and related products to end users and manufacturers. They are members of several National Fire Protective Association committees on personal protective equipment as well as the ASTM International committee on protective clothing. They participate in the government's Interagency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability. Both serve as FireRescue1's PPE experts.

As MSA's Product Group Manager for Respiratory Protection Products and the Fire Service, Jason Traynor is responsible for driving MSA North America's core respiratory product strategies. Jason has more than 15 years of diverse business and marketing experience.

Jeff and Grace Stull: The face piece lens is going through a dramatic change based on new requirements for higher levels of radiant heat protection. It is likely that the larger lens could be adapted for a smaller window without any loss of peripheral vision. At the same time, the heads up display is likely to go through significant changes as a primary human information interface for the firefighter.

Jason Traynor: The technology. And by that I mean SCBA electronics, fireground communications and the ability to integrate information from multiple sensor inputs into one place. Because when fighting fires, being situationally aware of not just the surroundings — but your equipment — could save your life. 


Which component is likely to remain unchanged for a long time, why?

Traynor: The cylinder and that's based on the current regulatory environment and fire service infrastructure for filling stations and cylinders.

Emery: The backframe designs of today's SCBA have been time-tested, and the designs used by most manufacturers today continue to perform well under tough fireground conditions. While some new concepts have been proposed over the past several years, it will likely be a long period of time before those concepts become commercialized, due to the challenges with meeting approval requirements while still achieving weight and profile reduction.  

There are also economical issues associated with the cost of any new designs and infrastructure to support a drastic change in the SCBA form factor, and federal grant support may be required before a significant number of departments would transition to any new SCBA designs.

Stull: A large amount of work had been done to redefine the geometry of the pressurized cylinder. Those changes that have been accomplished are already in place. Further significant changes are unlikely because Federal Department of Transportation regulations that define minimum burst strengths on cylinders cannot be easily updated.


What is the biggest issue facing SCBA manufacturers?

Stull: The NFPA 1981 standard setting minimum design and performance criteria is subject to frequent change, generally adding new requirements in each revision. Many of these changes required substantial research and development efforts to conform with the new edition of the standard. It is important to temper the proposed changes with the reality of overall fire service exposures and respiratory protection needs.

Traynor: Rising component costs while still designing and building a product that fire departments can afford.

Emery: The most significant change happening right now is the transition from the 2007 to the 2013 edition of the NFPA SCBA Standards (NFPA 1981 & 1982). As manufacturers, we have an obligation to proactively educate our customers about not only the written changes, but their potential impact to a department's operations and SOGs.


What features should cash-strapped fire departments focus on when buying new SCBA?

Emery: It is critical to look at overall cost of ownership; talk to other departments about their costs for spare parts, repairs and other maintenance activities over the life of an SCBA. While the highest quality SCBA may cost a little more up-front, over the course of its 10-year life, there can be significant cost savings due to the reliability and durability of the product. These savings may include reduced maintenance requirements, spare parts costs, and inventory requirements.  

Another important factor is the track record of forward and backward compatibility. As new products become available, they should be easily incorporated into the rest of the fleet, rather than requiring replacement of expensive equipment with useful life remaining.

Stull: Proven durability and appropriate rated service life should be the priorities in new purchases.

Traynor: In addition to durability and reliability, a cash-strapped department could focus on the total cost of ownership, including consumables associated with the product.


Likewise, what should those departments avoid?

Traynor: Whichever manufacturer they choose, they should avoid "nice to have" features that may be underutilized and focus on those that provide the lowest cost of ownership.

Emery: Avoid awards based solely on the lowest up-front price. It is important to conduct research and talk with other departments about their experiences. Equally important is putting together a specification and set of support requirements that will meet the department's long-term goals — help the city management understand why those factors are important to the long-term department budget and to minimizing risk to the city and department personnel.

Stull: Given the high relative investment in SCBA for a department and its consequent maintenance requirements, departments should seek systems that have strong proof of problem-free operation based on historical use of selected SCBA at other departments.


What's the biggest mistake you see firefighters make when using SCBA?

Stull: There are general failures in keeping SCBA clean. SCBA like gear are capable of accumulating contaminants that require special cleaning and that are not always removed. Any SCBA component that becomes damaged or cannot be properly cleaned must be immediately and properly replaced.

Traynor: Oftentimes firefighters arrive on scene and are focused on getting right to work. They're thinking about the fire itself, the structure it's in, and whether or not anyone is trapped inside. What they don't often think about is ensuring that their SCBA is donned properly and that the straps are adjusted appropriately — that's what I see as one of their biggest mistakes.

Emery: Probably the biggest industry-wide mistake is still not utilizing the SCBA in potentially risky environments and activities, particularly during roof operations and overhaul. There has been a lot of effort made in the industry to improve awareness around 'knowing your smoke,' and the use of gas monitors and improved situational awareness can help minimize both short-term and long-term health risks.


What are the two or three most important SCBA maintenance items firefighters must do?

Emery: Probably the most important maintenance activity is regular inspections of the SCBA. This means at the beginning of every shift, and after any run where air was consumed. For SCBA used less frequently, such as for volunteer fire departments or chiefs, the SCBA Not only do these inspections support NFPA compliance and insure the product is ready for use, it also creates a culture of individual ownership in the condition of the SCBA, and insures that the firefighter has full confidence in the performance of that SCBA when he or she is ready to use it.

Stull: In addition to cleaning, daily checks, and proper fit testing must be conducting routinely.

Traynor: Fighting fires is tough, dirty and brutal work. As such, SCBAs and other equipment used by firefighters take a beating. Accordingly it's vital that you conduct daily checks and inspection, and clean the apparatus whenever possible.


Describe how you think SCBA will look/function 10 years from now.

Traynor: While we do not expect a revolutionary change in the SCBA itself, we will continue to innovate around the existing PPE platforms to better integrate them together as a system.

Emery: I believe that it will generally look very similar to today's SCBA in another decade. There will surely be continued focus on reducing the weight and profile, and a continued trend toward higher-pressure cylinders, such as the 5,500-psi designs. And, I expect to see an increased level of functionality in terms of electronics and wireless data interface capabilities.

Stull: Hopefully, SCBA will become lighter with lower profiles and become a more efficient, but robust platform for integration with ensemble electronics. The future should be towards integrated ensembles with SCBA being better assimilated with garments, helmets and other system elements to offer better mobility and impart less stress on the firefighter.

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