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Pressure Point
Federal contract allows IAFF to lead development of lighter self-contained breathing apparatus
Volume 24, No. 1

In everyday life, "low profile" is defined as behaving in a deliberately inconspicuous, modest or anonymous manner. But with regard to self-contained breathing apparatus, low profile means greater mobility in confined spaces.

With this result in mind, the Department of Homeland Security has awarded the International Association of Fire Fighters a contract to develop a pressure vessel that will make SCBA worn by first responders substantially lighter and low profile. The contract is under the direction of Rich Duffy, Assistant to the President and head of the IAFF's Division of Occupational Health, Safety, and Medicine. The inventor of the technology is Stan Sanders of Sanders Industrial Design. His related company, Vulcore Industrial, is providing engineering development work for this new project.

Jeff Stull, president of Austin, TX-based International Personnel Protection, is part of the IAFF project team. IPP, a small company that consists of Jeff and his wife Grace, provides expertise on the design, evaluation, selection and use of personal protective equipment.

"Imagine a small hotdog shaped cylinder," Stull said. "Two of these low profile cylinders are tied together with a flexible joint. Then a series of seven of these dual cylinder arrangements are tied together to make a very flat and flexible back pack."

Each cylinder is made from a high grade plastic wrapped in Kevlar and wound with preimpregnated carbon, Stull said. The overall assembly is about 14 inches wide, two inches deep and slightly less than two feet high.

"Essentially, where we've had one large oval cylinder on the responder's back that is hard to hold, this unit will have a harness or vest type arrangement," Stull said. "It replaces the cylinder and back frame that is part of our current SCBA."

Weight will be another advantage of the new pressure vessel configuration. Initial prototype designs could be approximately 50 percent lighter than conventional SCBA cylinders. That added weight has been associated with increased rates of injury and fatalities for emergency responders.

Also, the smaller cylinders do not fragment if ruptured, but simply vent contained air, Stull said.

"The pressure vessel does not contain any metal and the overall air volume is spread out over several smaller pressure vessels," he said. "More importantly, the material being used does not give way like aluminum-based cylinders do. There is no explosive force to these cylinders being compromised."

One barrier to employing this new technology is that the new pressure vessel must be approved by the Department of Transportation to be marketed and transported. The IAFF project team is undertaking a process to demonstrate the safety of the product to obtain a special permit under current DOT rules and regulations, Stull said.

"Carbon composite cylinders in use in SCBA today also require a special DOT permit," he said. "These common SCBA cylinders are also not directly covered by the current DOT regulations either."

The project team, which includes Vulcore Industrial of Fort Wayne, IN, is working closely with SCBA manufacturers on how best to take advantage of the new cylinder design.

"Our whole approach is that this new pressure vessel array will simply be a replacement for conventional cylinders," Stull said. "We expect manufacturers to come up with a number of designs for packaging the whole system."

Members of the Fort Wayne IAFF Local 124 have already tested the prototypes in simulated confined space entry. Still, the IAFF's contract with DHS calls for a least another year of research and development and extensive field testing combined with processes for manufacturer certification to government and NFPA standards.

"Toward the end of 2009 we will hopefully see this product reach the marketplace," Stull said.

 
 

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