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Why SCBA face piece fit tests improve firefighter safety

Not properly testing SCBA face pieces put firefighters in danger now and in years to come

Fit testing evaluates the interface between the firefighter’s face and the SCBA face piece to ensure a proper and correct fit. Depending upon legislation in your jurisdiction, fit testing should be done on a yearly basis but must be done every two years. Some jurisdictions require it on an annual basis.

There are two types of fit testing: qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative test requires using a sensitizer to test for an air-tight seal, while the quantitative test uses a device to measure the amount of air from the environment outside the face piece in relation to the air inside the face piece.

The current requirements dictate using quantitative fit-testing methods for any SCBA that is CBRN rated as it produces a truer value for an air-tight fit.

Close shave
One of the biggest obstacles to fit testing is the firefighter’s facial hair. In order for the test to be conducted, the firefighter needs to be clean-shaven so that no facial hair interferes with the seal of the face piece.

This seems to be a big problem within the fire service — having clean-shaven firefighters wearing SCBA. I recently conducted a live burn class and to my surprise, five of the 45 firefighters came with facial scruff. They had to quickly shave it off in order to participate in the class.

The fit test is in a controlled environment but when the firefighter wears an SCBA face piece with facial scruff on the fireground, there will be failing results.

The results may be acute or chronic. Regardless, the results will lead to a deadly end.

Quantitative testing
Many fire departments have policies regarding firefighters’ facial hair and the use of SCBA. It is important to first have these in place and enforce them for the betterment of the firefighter.

The domino affect here is the physiological breakdown of the firefighter over a period of time, eventually leading to the firefighter becoming handicapped.

Another important aspect of the SCBA is the flow test. This also is an annual test to ensure the SCBA is functioning in working condition.

SCBA manufacturer and NFPA health and safety rules require this testing. When SCBAs are not flow tested, they put the firefighter in danger. The mechanical device is exposed to harsh environments and will eventually produce mechanical defects in small or in large part.

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.