This article takes a look at product development for firefighting respiratory protection equipment and explains how the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has driven innovation to new levels in this market.
Established in 1896, the NFPA is an international non-profit organisation with an international membership of over 65,000, spanning nearly 100 nations. Its mission is: ‘to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education’.
Over the past few decades, the NFPA has made significant strides improving standards for many products used in the fire service. A significant number of these improvements were made to respiratory protection equipment; specifically the NFPA 1981 Standard on open-circuit self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for emergency services. Self-contained breathing apparatus also referred to as SCBA or BA’s (breathing apparatus) are common place in fire departments throughout the world. These tools have grown in use and functionality over the past 30 or so years.
Originally designed to provide clean breathing air to firefighters to function in firefighting applications, the functionality and requirements for these systems has grown immensely. Over recent years, manufacturers have added:
- Personal alert safety systems (PASS) devices to assist with man-down notification.
- Voice amplification systems (VAS) to assist with fire-ground communications.
- Emergency breathing support systems (EBSS) to assist with inter-team rescue and rapid intervention.
- Airline connections to support long duration use in confined space and bucket operations.
- Tracking systems enabling rapid intervention teams/rescue teams to quickly locate and save down firefighters.
- SCBA telemetry that brings SCBA information to command, promoting remote team management as well as air management.
NFPA standards have had to change with all of these advancements and in many cases NFPA standards have driven the safety of SCBA systems. Some of the accomplishments include increased breathing rate of SCBA and improved high-heat and flame resistance of many materials used on BA sets, but some of the most major improvements have come from standard changes over the past seven years.
The tumble test first required in NFPA 1982, 2007 edition (Standard for personal alert safety systems (PASS)) added to the durability of PASS systems, but also further improved the durability of the total system, as SCBA is included in the test with integrated PASS devices. A tumble test is conducted in a 1.5-metre stainless steel drum. The SCBA is placed into the drum, and the drum is rotated at 15 rpm for three hours.
The 2007 edition of NFPA 1982 also improved the heat and water resistance for electronics as they added heat and immersion requirements. These tests required the electronics to be exposed to very high heat environments and then dunked into a tank of water. This test by itself challenges the engineering capabilities of SCBA manufacturers, but the test goes further and requires this test to be duplicated six times. On the sixth time, the battery compartment must be open. The pass/fail criteria require proper functionality and no water ingress is permitted into the electronics.
The 2013 Edition of NFPA 1981 brought significant safety improvements to some of the more personal components of the SCBA. For instance, two of the new elements pushing product limits are the radiant and elevated heat tests. These tests challenge both the mask and BA’s ability to withstand the harshest of environments. The test criteria for these two sets was selected by the NFPA user panel in conjunction with NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). They tested many of the fire masks available at the time and continued to increase the challenge until only one mask remained. The results forced all but one manufacturer to change their mask materials, design, or both to pass these incredibly difficult tests. These new mask requirements have driven designs to withstand significantly higher temperatures and many SCBA manufacturers have had their new designs approved for previous editions, so existing customers can benefit from the new mask designs without requiring replacement of the complete SCBA.
Historically manufacturers like Avon Protection, Drager, Interspiro, MSA(Mine Safety Appliances), Scott, and Sperian have provided NFPA compliant SCBA. The 2013 edition of NFPA 1981 has proven so challenging that only Avon Protection, MSA, and Scott have attained the coveted NFPA compliance. Avon Protection was even recently recognised with a GOLD Industrial Designers Society of America, International Design Excellence Award (IDEA) for research relating to its Deltair product development. The engineering efforts were compared to that with companies such as Tesla Automobiles.
Another significant change derived from the latest changes is the approval for use of EBSS (Emergency Breathing Safety System), also known as buddy breathers. This change required collaboration from both NIOSH and NFPA and the outcome was new functional requirements to test EBSS systems, the approval for use of EBSS systems, but the approval for use is limited to firefighters. The reason for this limitation is due to their training efforts and the inherent danger of their jobs. Manufacturers expect an increase in EBSS sales now that the systems are approved and EBSS will continue to be a component of RIT and self-rescue training.
The most significant difference expected to affect many departments SOG’s is the modification of the low air indicator set point. Historically NFPA has required that the EOSTI (End of Service Time Indicator) or low air alarm set at about 25 percent of the rated pressure of the SCBA. For instance, if the SCBA was a 4,500 psig system, the low air alarm would alarm around 1,150 psig, providing 25 percent of cylinder pressure for emergency use. The new requirement for the SCBA low air alarm is 33 percent of rated cylinder pressure, but the standard defines 33 percent as 33 percent +5 percent / -0 percent.
The SCBA being shipped may have EOSTI set for anywhere from 33 percent to 38 percent of cylinder pressure. The same 4,500 psig SCBA will now provide a low air alarm at around 1,500-1,700 psig. Some have suggested that this change could affect the ability to work with SCBA of different low air alarm settings, and could affect how many departments purchase SCBA’s over the coming years. Many departments buy units periodically and intermingle SCBA from multiple NFPA standards, but the low air setting will make this difficult and its expected that fire departments will change how they purchase to replace the entire fleet when sensible and feasible.
NFPA 1981 was not the only standard with significant changes. NFPA 1982 also added optional transmitting PASS device requirements to the standard, as well as a standardised PASS tone. NFPA 1982 is the Standard on Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS). The standardised PASS tone requires that all NFPA 1982, 2013 edition PASS devices have similar pre-alarm and man-down alarm tones. The committee recognised that standardising these tones can benefit the fire service in many ways.
First and foremost, the standard tones should reduce confusion in a man-down situation, particularly in mutual aid situations utilising SCBA from multiple manufacturers. These tones are also required to be very similar in the specific timing of the tones, as the committee is considering that in the future there may be a tracking device capable of tracking the tones and providing direction to reduce the time necessary to find a downed firefighter. The market has not yet seen such a device, but once the technology and market demand is in place, some of the NFPA members believe that this technology will be popular.
The new requirements for optional transmitting PASS devices make some believe that the committee may require transmitting PASS devices in the future. A transmitting PASS device is a man-down alarm that sends personnel status, from the PASS, to a remote location via radio transmission. Transmitting PASS devices are also known as SCBA telemetry. The requirements for these systems include all components, from software, to radios, to the user interface. NFPA requires that the transmitter functions in certain conditions and the indications at command must happen within certain time periods, such as PASS alarm or evacuation messages must be transmitted and received within mere seconds of actuation. Once the evacuation function is selected by command, the evacuation indication must be available to users within a short period of time. These are the first steps in standardising transmitting PASS devices, and additional requirements further defining these systems are expected in future editions of NFPA 1982.
The future of firefighting respiratory protection is exciting as new products are developed for the market and for future NFPA advancements.
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