|Modern self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) have integrated personal accountability safety systems (PASS), which are activated when the air cylinders are turned on. PASS devices are typically attached to SCBA straps. They monitor motion, sounding a warning alarm to signal inactivity and a possible downed firefighter. (Fire Apparatus Staff Photo)|
Reacting to investigations of firefighter deaths that raised questions about the reliability of Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) alarms, The National Fire Protection Association has issued a tough new standard for the devices.
The standard – known as the 2007 edition of NFPA 1982 - provides for more demanding tests to address problems caused by heat, water and vibration that diminish the intensity of the alarm’s loud, piercing sound – a last resort call for help from firefighters who are in trouble and unable to help themselves.
The deadline for manufacturers to stop selling PASS alarms as NFPA compliant if they cannot meet the new testing requirements is Aug. 31. Almost all PASS devices are integrated components of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), but a small number are sold as stand-alone alarms.
The 2007 edition of NFPA 1982 is so new that it only became available for purchase in print form this month. But manufacturers, anticipating a tougher standard, have been working on new PASS designs for some time.
Representatives of the top three SCBA manufacturers – Scott Health & Safety, Mine Safety Appliances and Survivair – have expressed confidence they will be able to make alarms that are NFPA compliant by the Aug. 31 deadline.
“Based on our own testing, we think we have designed a product that will pass,” said Steven Weinstein, senior SCBA product manager with Survivair.
Firefighters will pay a hefty price for improved PASS alarms, he said, in part because a new standard for SCBA units has also been approved by NFPA with a deadline of Aug. 31. He said the average price for the most common SCBA models now is $2,800 to $3,000, and he estimated the average price will increase by $600 to $800 for a unit that is compliant with the new standards for both NFPA 1982, which governs PASS alarms, and NFPA 1981, which governs SCBA.
In a normal year in the U.S., “when the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grants come out on time,” Weinstein said SCBA manufacturers sell between 80,000 and 100,000 units.
That’s a market of about $300 million for SCBA that meet the new standards.
In December 2005 NFPA officials directed a spotlight on growing doubts about the reliability of PASS alarms with a public alert notice titled, “PASS alarm signals can fail at high temperatures.” The alert was triggered by investigative findings of the government’s Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, which is run by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
NIOSH, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control, reported that investigations of the deaths of four firefighters between 2001 and 2004 showed their PASS alarm signals were not heard or were barely audible. The incidents involved both stand-alone PASS alarms and SCBA-integrated PASS alarms.
Laboratory testing by the Fire Research Division of the National Institute for Standards and Technology showed sound reduction “may begin to occur at 300? F (150? C) and could affect all PASS,” according to the alert. Because solutions had not been found, the alert said the issue would continue to be studied by the NFPA’s Technical Committee on Electronic Safety Equipment, which makes revisions to the NFPA 1982 standard governing PASS alarms.
On Dec. 1, 2006 the committee voted to approve the 2007 edition of NFPA 1982, which is the fifth revision of the PASS standard first established in 1983. The effective date of the 2007 edition was Dec. 20, but the language of the new standard was not available for public review until last month.
Just days before a read-only version of the new standard was posted on the NFPA’s Web site on Feb. 9, increased attention was drawn to the shortcomings of PASS alarms in a two-part news story by MSNBC, which contended the government had not done enough and should have acted sooner.
The MSNBC reports faulted the CDC for the quality of its investigations of firefighter deaths and for cutting back on the number of investigations over time. Congress gave the job to CDC in 1998 because of the lack of progress in reducing firefighter deaths, which have numbered about 100 per year nationally since the early 1990s.
Reacting to the MSNBC reports, representatives of firefighter organizations last month called for increased funding to CDC so it could investigate all firefighter fatalities. Among those who believe the CDC’s funding has been inadequate is Lorraine Carli, NFPA’s vice president of public affairs. “It’s important to document firefighter fatalities because it better informs us, and we can make decisions that protect firefighters,” she said. “To the extent that that’s the goal, you want to make sure that it is well funded and can occur.”
Manufacturers have seats on the NFPA technical committees that develop the standards for fire service products, and in the case of PASS alarms, seven of the 22 committee members work for manufacturers.
“It’s important as these standards are developed that there is some point of view or perspective provided from the manufacturing sector as to what is and may not be possible,” said Mark Deasy, the director of public relations for Mine Safety Appliances, which sells its products under the MSA brand. “Being involved at the ground level, there is ample awareness that changes are going to be coming.”
Weinstein, the Survivair SCBA project manager, said he is a member of the technical committee that deals with PASS alarms, as well as the committee that governs SCBA.
Both Deasy and Weinstein do not expect their companies to be stuck with an inventory of older PASS alarms when sales of them as NFPA compliant are shut off on Aug. 31.
“We all have learned how to manage our inventory pretty well, so we know how to phase things out and ramp things up when a new standard comes out,” Weinstein said.
Based on past experience, he predicted between now and Aug. 31 some fire departments will order old PASS alarms with full knowledge of their potential deficiencies.
“Any time you have change in the fire service there is always a faction that embraces the change, and there’s always a faction that says, ‘I don’t want change,’ and they rush to get in orders prior to a new standard so they don’t have to get a more complicated device or a more expensive device,” he said. “There are some departments who say, ‘I would rather have a unit that fits within my budget,’ and they may say, ‘I don’t need all these new requirements.’ And that’s certainly their prerogative because NFPA standards are advisory.”
But as the Aug. 31 deadline approaches, Weinstein said, “there will be fewer and fewer people who say, ‘Gee, I want to buy the old units,’ and there will be more who say, ‘I want to wait.'”