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The evolution of SCBA: How modern innovation is improving firefighter safety (EU)

The biggest barrier to firefighters trying to extinguish a blaze, or attempt a rescue within a building, is smoke. The need to provide crews with the ability to breath, manoeuvre within a building freely and interact with colleagues has shaped the development of breathing apparatus. From the first cumbersome smoke helmets, dependant on an umbilical cord, to self-contained Proto oxygen sets, to the revolutionary introduction of compressed air sets in the 1960s, breathing apparatus has saved countless lives.

Today’s firefighters constantly face new and sometimes unexpected challenges. This whitepaper, based on views from an industry roundtable panel discussion led by safety equipment innovator MSA Safety, examines the latest threats facing firefighters, and considers how modern-day Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) can evolve to meet them.

Firefighters deserve to be protected

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers, no one will forget the footage of the New York City Fire Department crews running towards the blaze in Manhattan. Wearing full fire protection equipment, they entered stairwells and began to ascend. Their standard issue PPE and breathing apparatus weighed in at ~34 kg, excluding any other tools carried. Despite the fact that both buildings were 110 floors high, the equipment enabled one crew to reach the 78th storey, before, catastrophically, the South Tower collapsed.

In the UK’s 2017 Grenfell Tower blaze, where insulating cladding fuelled the rapid spread of fire with highly toxic smoke and fumes, a firefighter talking to the Independent newspaper1 has explained how, wearing breathing apparatus, crews attempted to create a bridgehead – a safe space for firefighters to gather inside the building – and to connect a hose to a dry riser outlet. Despite the tragic loss of 72 lives, firefighters were able to rescue 65 residents.

It’s clear the design, performance, reliability and ease-of-use of modern breathing apparatus directly affects a firefighter’s ability to enter a building, search for, find, rescue and evacuate trapped individuals. The safety industry has a duty of care to constantly look at ways breathing apparatus technology and best practice might be enhanced or improved. At the start of every fire station shift, lives are at stake.

Ergonomics. One size definitely doesn’t fit all

Today’s serving firefighters span people of all genders, shapes and sizes. Historically, having a smaller frame or face has left some apparatus users, including women, finding it difficult to achieve a good fit when wearing standard breathing equipment and PPE. Weight distribution and wearability have also been raised as concerns. Fortunately, the fire protection market has recognised the issue and is changing.

The latest facepiece from MSA, for example, has been produced in three sizes and also offers three sizes of nose cup to ensure the perfect fit. Explains MSA’s Jason Traynor: “When we look at weight and comfort, our SCBA designs over the past five years have evolved to move weight lower, and closer to the hips.

So, to ensure the ideal distribution, we’ve made sure the hip belt is fully height-adjustable for the user to match their build and frame. Once again, the move to a flexible, modular model for equipment is improving performance and safety whilst building user confidence”.

The desire to configure breathing equipment more flexibly is also being driven by the need to consider specific use cases. For example, responding to incidents in plant, nuclear or aerospace environments will often see firefighters forced to work in very confined spaces. Here, the ability to rapidly change the size, profile and configuration of compressed air cylinders – such as via a universal back plate design – affords more effective and manoeuvrable equipment for any team on the ground.

Delivering expectations. Highlighting value during procurement

Sadly, the breathing apparatus performance users want and what public-service procurement perceives it can afford or will approve can be very different. Key influencers in the buying process, whilst knowledgeable, are often not front-line users of breathing apparatus fighting fires.

One way in which the industry can improve this situation is to the make the business case for better quality equipment more clearly. Alongside creating wider procurement frameworks and investigating flexible finance options, buying decision-makers should be able to focus more closely on value – in particular the whole life cost, including maintenance, training and inspections, and components designed for longer life and supported by warranties, as opposed to just the initial equipment purchase price. Generally improving a buyer’s experience with continued engagement over a longer period of time, including aftercare support, can also help to provide all-important added value to the procurement process.

In conclusion: key themes for next-generation SCBA

  • Improved fire scene communication solutions
    Better fire scene communications mean better, safer firefighting and rescue. Ensuring users have the ability to communicate more easily when wearing breathing apparatus is currently a major focus for innovation. Technology providing telemetry and situational awareness is already proving invaluable, and manufacturers should ensure new solutions have retro-fit compatibility with their existing sets.
  • Increased value with future-proofed purchases
    A manufacturing shift towards offering modular variations of breathing apparatus brings with it the opportunity for purchasers to extend the usable lifetime of their equipment and defer obsolescence. The ability to retro-fit innovative enhancements or technologies to existing sets down the line both increases flexibility and adds value.
  • User-centric product design
    Successful products start with the end-user in mind – one size doesn’t fit all. By actively engaging with a variety of end-users during design, prototyping and testing, manufacturers can better understand the demands of different sectors, firefighting scenarios and practical applications in use. Modularity is the future.
  • A focus on simple, easy-to-use and fit for purpose
    The easier and more intuitive equipment can be made, the more users will embrace it with confidence. From ensuring apparatus can be easily cleaned and decontaminated to keeping essential maintenance and checks clear and affordable, simplicity is key.
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