Several SCBA Manufacturers Develop Low-Profile Prototypes

The Vulcore High-Flex 808 low-profile pack is equipped with quick disconnect buckles, allowing it to be replaced with a fresh unit without removing the harness.
The Vulcore High-Flex 808 low-profile pack is equipped with quick disconnect buckles, allowing it to be replaced with a fresh unit without removing the harness.
Two views of the Vulcore High-Flex 808 low-profile pack, which is expected to be certified and available for firefighters by the end of 2012.Two views of the Vulcore High-Flex 808 low-profile pack, which is expected to be certified and available for firefighters by the end of 2012.
Two views of the Vulcore High-Flex 808 low-profile pack, which is expected to be certified and available for firefighters by the end of 2012.

The pioneering Vulcore low-profile pack - a new way of storing compressed air for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) - is attracting serious interest from conventional SCBA manufacturers.

Several companies are working on prototypes that incorporate the product, and the units are expected to be exhibited at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in March, according to Stan Sanders, the inventor of the low-profile pack. He said he is confident his product will be certified and available for firefighters in two years.

Sanders is the founder and president of Vulcore Industrial LLC, a product development think tank that does a lot of government work, much of it classified. His company is based in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he and others have been working with firefighters to refine the low-profile pack, a slender, flexible array of interconnected pressure vessels nestled in a soft cover, rather than mounted on a rigid frame.

Sanders said the latest version - the High-Flex 808 - will be built by Ultra Electronics, an international company whose representatives approached him about producing it at a plant in Indiana.

"By the end of 2012, they will be humming along, putting out product," he said. "Ultra also does electronic packages for the SCBA manufacturers. So they're a real good fit for Vulcore."

He said SCBA manufacturers who have been working on low-profile prototypes do not want to be identified before the FDIC conference and trade show, which begins on March 21 in Indianapolis.

However, one of those companies is expected to be MSA, which produced and displayed the first complete SCBA low-profile prototype at FDIC 2010. That unit was developed through a contract with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which received $2.7 million for the development project from the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The MSA prototype drew positive reviews from firefighters at FDIC, as well as during a limited field trial the following month at the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Training Academy in Maryland. A second field trial was planned, but delayed because of an oversight in a special permit issued by the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) to certify the safety of Vulcore's innovative pressure vessel design.

A DOT permit is needed in order to ship and pressurize the product. The glitch was that the DOT permit qualified the pressure vessels as safe, but not as part of an overall system for SCBA, according to Jeffrey Stull, whose Texas firm, International Personnel Protection Inc., is working with the IAFF on the project. He said he does not expect any problems in clearing up the oversight.

"You would not ship a pressurized vessel by itself," he said. "You ship it in an array, and that array would include a manifold and a cover. Both are essential for operation of the system."

Once the DOT permit deficiency is corrected, he said it should take three months to complete the IAFF-DHS contract and conduct the second field trial of the MSA prototype.

Obtaining DOT approval was one aspect of the IAFF contract, which was funded to demonstrate the feasibility of the Vulcore low-profile pack as a replacement part that SCBA manufacturers could build into their products. The array's design and dimensions evolved as the IAFF project progressed for two years. During the last year, the Vulcore product underwent further modifications to address firefighters' concerns that it was too long. Sanders said the prototypes expected to be exhibited at FDIC will have shorter and narrower pressure vessel arrays than the MSA low-profile pack.

He said he developed the product to "enhance a firefighter's survivability." The goal was to make it lighter, slimmer and flexible to improve comfort and reduce the chances that it could get snagged or limit a firefighter's ability to move through tight spaces.

The low-profile pack's pressure vessels are less than half the diameter of a traditional SCBA cylinder, and Sanders is confident that the High-Flex 808 for a 45-minute SCBA will be 30 percent lighter than conventional SCBA.

While the High-Flex 808 is the design that will be in production by the end of 2012, Sanders said a successor low-profile pack is already under development. "We have other technologies we're working on for [the National Aeronautics and Space Administration] for the next generation moon suit and black ops," he said, "and I think that technology will bleed into the SCBA business. But it's about four years off."

One factor that could affect Sanders' timetable for 808 production is the revision cycle for the National Fire Protection Association's 1981 standard governing SCBA currently underway.

"The introduction of a new SCBA is a major undertaking for any of the manufacturers," Stull said. "One of the factors that they are going to be weighing is the revision of 1981, which they know is going to impact their ability to produce a product and have it certified."

NFPA 1981 revisions are scheduled to take effect in 2012, and he said they are expected to include requirements to improve the durability of electronics and to increase the heat resistance of facepieces.

In addition, he said, "minor" changes will have to be made to the standard to allow the Vulcore product to be tested and approved. "The certification processes as they exist today do not accommodate the new technology," he said.

NFPA 1981 specifies the way tests must be conducted, and it is written for conventional SCBA cylinders with rigid backframes. For example, Stull said, the standard dictates the geometry of the vibration test stand, but the Vulcore product does not fit that shape.

Acceptance of the low-profile pack will have to be accompanied by other changes in apparatus seat design, storage compartments and fill stations.

Another major factor is cost. Sanders estimates the price will be 15 percent higher than conventional SCBA, but he believes firefighters will pay that much for increased comfort and safety.

He recalled a meeting he attended with IAFF and DHS officials and a group of big city fire chiefs at which he asked the chiefs if they would be willing to pay an additional 15 percent for the Vulcore low-profile pack. According to Sanders, "they all raised their hands and said, 'Yeah, we want to buy them now. When can we get them?'"

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