Article Archive
Industry Holds Its Breath
Vol 21 No 2

Don't let a lack of new products for 2006 cause you to believe that SCBA manufacturers have lost interest in competition. The energy that would normally promote innovation is being temporarily channelled into dealing with pending revisions in the NFPA minimum standards for open-circuit breathing apparatus and PASS alarms.

Most manufacturers are moving ahead with product changes they anticipate will be required when the final versions of NFPA 1981 and 1982, are expected to take effect in 2007. Others say they prefer to see those final versions formally enacted before committing to altering their products.

For one, Mine Safety Appliances (MSA) is proceeding on what is being proposed for NFPA 1981, said Mike Rupert, MSA product group manager for supplied air respirators.

"The standard went out for public comment in December 2005 and comes back in March 2006," Rupert said. "After it comes back and the comments are reviewed there could be changes. Ultimately, the standard will be issued in February 2007. So we have to act now on what is being proposed with the realization that we might have to change our course depending on the results of the public comment."

Drawing major controversy from the industry is a proposal under NFPA 1981 that would require all breathing air cylinders and valve assemblies to be interchangeable among the various SCBA manufacturers. Dubbed the "blue bottle" proposal after an early report erroneously stated the new universal cylinders would be painted blue, critics have condemned the measure as costly and unnecessary. Also on the table are increased audibility and thermal performance for PASS alarms, enhanced voice communication for firefighters wearing face masks and greater durability and thermal performance of SCBA electronics.

"It takes a significant amount of time to change these designs and get through the NIOSH and NFPA approval process," Rupert said. "MSA is acting now to ensure the availability of these new safety features at the earliest possible date."

Major product changes are not made in an instant. Six months are required to make major changes and then gear up for production, said Ernie Younkins, ISI product manager. The problem is that the period between completion of the standards process and implementation is six months exactly.

"If you wait until September to start work you only have until the first of the year for product approval," Younkins said. "You may not be ready."

For the most part, NFPA standard changes are a matter of degrees rather than a major upheaval, he said. Usually these proposals are "set in concrete" enough in advance that the manufacturer can be confident in them.

Survivair, rather than anticipating the exact revisions, plans to build its 2007 SCBA products to design criteria expanded significantly beyond any potential revisions under consideration, said Survivair senior product manager Steve Weinstein.

"That way we're sure to have what is necessary in 2007," he said.

Weinstein questions the wisdom of acting on proposals rather than the final version.

"It's foolish," Weinstein said. "A lot of this stuff is up in the air. It's not clear whether it's all going to make it through as a requirement of the standard. There have been a lot of discussions about that. I don't know why any manufacturer would make such assumptions but that's up to them."

Relatively late changes in the revision process have happened before. Mike Brookman, president of Interspiro, noted that the 2002 edition of NFPA 1981 included a requirement for a rapid intervention connection or RIC fitting (also known as a universal air connection or UAC) for quickly charging a downed or trapped firefighter.

"It came up in the last six months of discussion," he said. "You have a five-year study cycle and then something pops up in the last six months that you don't anticipate. But it's the new standard and you have to react."

To better stay abreast of rapid changes in the market Interspiro routinely upgrades its products every 18 months, he said.

"We try to stay on the leading edge and introduce innovations in anticipation of the requirements instead of reacting to them," Brookman said. "We will continue to innovate in advance of the standard."

At Draeger, market manager for fire and emergency rescue Paul House said, both attitudes about incorporating standard revisions are reflected.

"There are some things we know that will be in the standard and we can start working toward the known items," House said. "When new standards are expected with more robust requirements, say regarding the electronics, you do have to look at the worst case scenario and take a design approach that encompasses that. You need to be careful. You don't want to produce something that underperforms and does not meet the standards, then find out you have to suddenly redesign something to meet the requirements of the standard.."

By the same token, you can also overdesign a product "making it too complicated and something the firefighters might not require," House said.

"We like to anticipate some of the changes so we can stay ahead of the game," he said. "For other things, we do wait and see, especially with something like this blue bottle proposal that is being considered."

The NFPA Technical Committee Report on Proposals states that the concept of a standardized cylinder that would work with any SCBA of the same pressure classification has been under consideration for several years. However, the issue took on a more urgent tone with the increased emphasis on terrorism and homeland security.

"The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has expressed its concern about the ability of neighboring jurisdictions and emergency agencies to operate together during large-scale incidents," the report states. "One of their concerns was providing sufficient breathing air for large numbers of emergency workers who may respond to a terrorism incident requiring SCBA use."

As could be expected, the proposal has stirred considerable controversy. Opponents cite the lack of any incident on record where a firefighter had been killed or injured due to the lack of interchangeable SCBA cylinders at any emergency scene. All current SCBA cylinders in use are required to have a universal refill connector meaning these bottles can be quickly refilled using any cascade system.

Jack Sawicki is vice president of business development for Global Secure, now selling the Pioneer Pro SCBA line. A member of the Cherry Hill (VA) VFD, Sawicki was on site at the Pentagon on 9/11 with responsibility for logistical issues.

"The issue was how fast can you fill a cylinder, not getting more cylinders from somewhere else," Sawicki said. "You had to be able to turn the cylinders around. The idea that someone will drive down from New York and that the cylinders they bring need to interface with the cylinders on scene isn't the concern. I'd rather they bring an air truck behind them than to require them to have all their SCBA compatible."

Despite the short turnaround time, most of the manufacturers interviewed by Industrial Fire World agreed that the actual changes needed to meet the proposed interoperable cylinder requirement changes in NFPA 1981 are relatively minor. Chief among these changes is adapting the cylinder valve to accept the new universal bottle. Younkins with ISI said the company plans to add a half-inch drive nut. Draeger, on the other hand, plans to adapt a cross flow or T-valve, said House.

Likewise, some manufacturers may have to make changes to their carrier harness to accommodate the other manufacturers' cylinder valve assemblies. At ISI, Younkins said, the cylinder support or spoon that helps the cylinder rest against the lower backframe may have to be changed.

"We may have to redesign to accommodate the 60-minute cylinders from some other manufacturers," Younkins said. "We won't have a problem doing that."


At present, most SCBA manufacturers offer a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) certified unit as part of their product line. NFPA 1981 will require that all SCBA sold be CBRN certified, said Weinstein at Survivair. Not everyone is in favor of that requirement, he said.

"A lot of rural fire departments are not happy about that," he said. "They have zero chance of having a terrorist incident nearby, yet they're going to spend more money for a CBRN unit and get no potential benefit out of it."

Prior to joining Global Secure, Sawicki worked for Versar environmental engineering, overseeing the decontamination of a 60,000 square foot mail facility contaminated with anthrax in 2001. His background as a volunteer firefighter gives him a unique perspective on the CBRN issue.

"Some little town in Vermont with a population of 100 is probably not going to face a CBRN attack," Sawicki said. "If I were them and had grant money to spend I'd probably buy a thermal imaging scope. I wouldn't buy a CBRN unit and I wouldn't really care about interoperability."

At this time Global Secure, selling the Pioneer Pro SCBA line acquired when Cairns AIR closed, does not have a CBRN certified system, Sawicki said. Ultimately, that has been one of the two reasons contributing to the success of the Pioneer Pro SCBA. Volunteer fire departments who are not interested in paying for a CBRN SCBA, but still want an innovative product backed up with a national network of service centers choose the Pioneer Pro, Sawicki said. The second reason is the patent for heads up displays required by NFPA is owned by Global Secure.

"We are primarily selling SCBA to the industrial market," Sawicki said. "We still have fire department clients, but they are mostly volunteer fire departments that are not using the NFPA standard. If they are using the NFPA standard but not using DHS funds to buy their equipment they are not required to have a CBRN product."


For years, PASS alarms have been integrated into SCBA as a way to guarantee that the device is activated when needed most. Hence, new tougher requirements for PASS alarm audibility are being built into the revised NFPA 1982.

"There are heat and durability tests that are much more severe under the new standard,' said MSA's Rupert. "There is also a new requirement that is called a muffle test that requires that the alarm be audible from five different orientations. There are also new tests for submersion, heat, impact and vibration."

According to Younkins, the audibility standard will remain 95 decibels (dBA) at a distance of three meters (9.9 feet).

"A firefighter has to be able to hear the alarm 10 feet away in any direction, whether the alarm is facing him or not," Younkins said. "So if the firefighter wearing the alarm is lying on his left side and I'm to his right I still have to be able to hear 95 dBA from 10 feet away. The new standard also has a face-up and face-down requirement. Most people go into the fetal position because it's our natural protection. So an unconscious firefighter is likely to be on his stomach."

Current PASS alarms emit sound in only one direction. To meet the new standard may require two to four more devices on the front and back of the SCBA, Younkins said.

"The other problem is that it might take an alarm as loud as 110 dBA to guarantee 95 dBA at 10 feet," Younkins said. "At that decibel range people usually need hearing protection."

Higher audibility requirements for communication through the SCBA face mask will probably make vocal amplification a necessity in the future, Younkins said. The days of relying on a plastic speech diaphragm alone are close to an end.

"Firefighters doing a room search or working a fire together need to be able to talk to each other through the face piece," Younkins said. "That also means being able to talk through the radio system to people in command outside. I must be able to talk to you through my amplified voice and be understood."

Like the PASS alarm test, voice audibility deals in sound to noise ratio. The new requirement has the same background noise level, yet the alarm must be heard from a greater distance to be heard.

"The audibility test is performed with a background noise level of 70 dBA," Younkins said. "The firefighter wearing the face mask says simple words such as 'dog' and 'cat' slowly. Ten feet away you have five listeners who write down what they think he said. You have to have 80 to 85 percent correct word identification."


The coming year will not be completely void of product innovation in SCBA. Chief among that innovation are telemetry systems used to supplement PASS alarms in keeping better track of firefighters. MSA will be introducing its new JCM TxR telemetry system this year, Rupert said.

"Almost everyone is working on one if they haven't introduced one," he said. "There are a couple on the market now and SCBA manufacturers are working on new systems."

MSA's experience with thermal imaging systems and remote wireless video transmission has been invaluable in developing SCBA telemetry. JCM TxR provides data on air pressure, alarm status, time remaining, battery level, thermal alarm reading, and also a two-way evacuation feature.

"Someone at incident command can evacuate a firefighter and that firefighter can acknowledge that they've received the evacuation notice," Rupert said.

Survivair is introducing related accessories to its Survivair Pathfinder? firefighter location system, Weinstein said. One of these accessories is called an Auxiliary Beacon.

"They can be used like bread crumbs," Weinstein said. "Let's say that rapid intervention people are entering a structure to find a downed firefighter. Once they locate him using our Survivair Pathfinder tracking device they have to find their way back out again."

Auxiliary Beacons are small ultrasonic transmitters left along the route as the rapid intervention team enters the building. Visibility is zero. However, the same tracking device used to find the firefighter can now be tuned to a new frequency produced by the beacons, allowing the RIT team to retrace it steps and find their way home. A third frequency is assigned to identify beacons placed at entrances and exits to the burning structure.

"This gives firefighters still another option," Weinstein said. "If they need to exit immediately they can move toward the nearest exit beacon."

Draeger Safety introduced its telemetry system this year. The Merlin system uses an electronically controlled entry board system that monitors vital information from the firefighter such as cylinder pressure, time to warning whistle and the thermal temperature to which the firefighter is being exposed. All this information is transmitted in real time.

"The system uses a dedicated radio frequency that allows users to have good penetration into a building," House said. "This also guarantees no cross interference from other radio frequencies in the area." Merlin also monitors for automatic or manual activation of PASS alarms. Also, Merlin is able to transmit audible signals ordering individual or mass evacuation from a burning structure.

ISI is introducing a new SCBA air management system in April 2006 that monitors PASS status, cylinder pressure and real time temperatures. Younkins said the company has made a deliberate decision to call it an air management system rather than a telemetry system.

"You can call it that but I don't like to because it infers that you have the ability to locate the firefighter," Younkins said.

The system is capable of monitoring 32 firefighters on scene from one command center, a much larger number than other systems on the market.

"For a large enough fire you might have to set up a second command center," Younkins said.

The ISI system also offers name recognition. Each SCBA has a number pad where the firefighter wearing it can enter a personal pin number. Instead of firefighter A, B or C, firefighters are identified by name on the control board.

Interspiro plans to roll out the latest version of its SCBA system in March. The S5 uses a wireless heads-up display, as opposed to the wired HUD offered with the S4 system.


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