Associations, Engine Company, Fire Department

SCBA Emergency Escape Filter Maker Changes Course

Issue 2 and Volume 15.

An effort to craft a National Fire Protection Association standard to govern escape filters for self-contained breathing apparatus in out-of-air emergencies has been abandoned.

“The more we looked at it, the more the limitations of such a device kind of jumped out,” said David Bernzweig, a lieutenant/paramedic with the Columbus (Ohio) Division of Fire who is a member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Respiratory Protection Equipment. “It became very evident we were trying to find a suitable replacement for supplied air, and the reality is there really isn’t a suitable replacement other than more supplied air.”

The decision was disappointing for Essex PB&R, the company in St. Louis, Mo., that makes and markets the Last Chance emergency rescue filter, which attaches to an SCBA air mask. “It would be nice to have the support of the NFPA,” said Essex Vice President Dave Hurley. “That was the plan.”

NIOSH Certification

Instead of pushing for creation of a new escape filter standard, he said the company is changing course and attempting to certify its product through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a stand-alone respirator under an existing regulation.

“As we go from fire department to fire department in an effort to sell this filter, every firefighter we talk to would love to have the device,” Hurley said. “The problem is they’re worried that it doesn’t have a NIOSH certification.”

Using a device without NIOSH certification, he said, could create problems with federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

Essex tried to work with OSHA for more than a year to get third-party support for the Last Chance filter, but Hurley said OSHA officials encouraged the company to try for certification through NIOSH.

The company’s new strategy – to certify the Last Chance filter as a stand-alone respirator while selling it as an escape filter – will require support from SCBA manufacturers, according to Hurley, because an air mask and filter must be tested as a single unit to receive NIOSH certification.

While the Last Chance filter is designed to operate for 15 minutes, he said NIOSH respirator testing requires it to operate for 60 minutes. He said the results of an independent test conducted last month for Essex were very encouraging, and the company is aiming for NIOSH certification before the end of this year.

It appears Essex will have the support of at least one SCBA manufacturer for NIOSH testing – Sperian Respiratory Protection. Sperian is selling Last Chance filters that fit its air mask as part of a huge SCBA contract in the Los Angeles area.

Escape-Only Device

“We’re selling it as an escape-only device in the event that you run out of air, with limitations,” said Sperian Senior Product Manager Steve Weinstein. “It doesn’t generate any oxygen, so it would only protect you in atmospheres where filtering is all you need to do.”

If Essex is successful in getting its product certified by NIOSH as a stand-alone respirator, he said, that makes it legitimate. “It still has the same limitations of use,” Weinstein said, “but at least you’ll have a certification, saying that what it does, it does properly.”

The first escape filter that attached to an air mask was developed by Brookdale International Systems, Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia, and was sold under the names EVACpro and Survivair Smoke Eater. But that product was recalled in the spring of 2006 after tests showed that it could fail to work properly, exposing users to harmful levels of carbon monoxide that could lead to serious injury or death.

Superior To Brookdale

While the Brookdale product was credited for saving some firefighters’ lives, the tests found its shelf life was limited because moisture diminished the filter’s effectiveness. Brookdale shut down operations, and Essex PB&R purchased many of the company’s assets.

Hurley said his company’s filter is superior to the Brookdale product because it uses a different type of filter and different packaging, a tear-resistant, vapor-resistant pouch. The key, he said, is to keep the unit dry until it is used.
The Last Chance filter traps toxic gases and converts carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, but it needs some oxygen to work properly. That is one of the limiting factors Bernzweig mentioned as contributing to the decision not to pursue creation of a NFPA emergency escape filter standard. He was a member of a NFPA task group that explored the need for a standard.

“Generally you don’t deal with oxygen deficient environments in firefighting, but theoretically it’s possible,” Weinstein said. “Dave [Bernzweig] and a few other committee members felt that without the assurance that you would be able to use it in all environments that the [NFPA] technical correlating committee probably would not allow it to fly.”

In the fall of 2007 a live burn test of the Last Chance filter was conducted in conjunction with the Yale University School of Medicine. One of the objectives of the test was to measure the amount of oxygen, which did not fall below 20 percent in the burn area, according to reports.

Essex says the Last Chance filter needs an oxygen level of at least 15 percent to work properly.

Bernzweig said he and other task group members were concerned that oxygen levels in a fire might not be high enough for a filter to work, depending on the type of fire and the location of the firefighter.

Another Limitation

He said another perceived limitation to developing a standard was whether a filter would be able to handle the breathing rate of an out-of-air firefighter lost or trapped in a burning building. In a situation where a firefighter is breathing at the rate of 100 liters a minute, he said, the firefighter is likely to over-breathe the capacity of a filter intended for 30 liters a minute.
While the Last Chance filter is designed to operate for 15 minutes, with a firefighter breathing at 100 liters a minute, Bernzweig said, “it may become a three or four minute filter.”

Answering Questions

Hurley said the Last Chance filter can operate well beyond a breathing rate of 30 liters per minute and has been successfully tested at 85 liters per minute for 15 minutes. “We believe in the product,” he said. “As we hear things, that it can’t do this or that, we try to set up a test to prove it can do it and answer all the questions where there are questions.”

Another limitation with a filter device mentioned by Bernzweig is the lack of an end-of-service-life indicator. “There’s no way to know the filter is not performing until it stops working and you fall over and die,” he said.

Bernzweig said there is a need to do something to help firefighters in out-of-air emergencies, but he does not believe a filter built with existing technology is the answer. “In my mind the problem is we don’t carry enough air or we don’t allocate the air where it belongs,” he said. “Our continuous problem is we run out of air. So why don’t we put more air in that reserve for when we get into trouble?”

A different, low-tech self-rescue device for out-of-air emergencies was recently introduced by a company called MAYDAY Air Products. Jim Sullivan, who created the company, said his device is simple, basically a hose with no filter that can be attached to an air mask, recalling another era before low-pressure regulators were directly connected to the air mask.

“When I first came on the job, we had belt-mounted regulators for our air packs,” he said. “If a fireman was running out of air, we were trained to disconnect the tubing from the belt-mounted regulator and redirect that hose to any source of breathable air we could find.” Many firefighters were taught to put the hose inside their turnout coats.

Sullivan said his product allows a firefighter with modern equipment to keep his air mask in place. “I wanted to target the individual with something a guy can afford,” he said. “For the cost of a pizza and a couple of beers, a guy can save his rear end.”

A Market Exists

Bernzweig, after being told about Sullivan’s product, said, “The problem is a market exists, and whenever a market exists people are going to try to find something, even if it’s not the right answer or the appropriate answer. We always want the shortcut.”

Regarding the MAYDAY product, Hurley said, “I know that’s how they used to do it years ago, but it would be nice to have something a little more efficient. A higher level of protection is good.”

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