SCBA Goes Beyond Breathing Air

Dräeger’s PSS 5000 SCBA
Dräeger’s PSS 5000 SCBA allows users to monitor their air and indicates the time remaining until the bottle is empty via its Sentinel 7000 communication system.
Viking Z Seven Plus
ISI’s Viking Z Seven Plus pack features a control console system that houses the electronics package and offers built-in PASS manual activation, a radio communications connection, and Voice Amplification System (VAS) speaker.
Scott Safety’s EPIC includes voice amplification
Scott Safety’s EPIC includes voice amplification and wireless radio interface devices.
Interspiro’s SpiroLink accountability system
Interspiro’s SpiroLink accountability system is available on its SpiromaticS7 SCBA.

It doesn’t seem long ago that self- contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) were bulky, had heavy bottles, and featured masks that easily fogged up. Today “smart” face pieces tell firefighters much more than how much air they have left. SCBAs primarily provide breathing air during a fire, but they actually do much more. Dick Vanderveen, vice president at Interspiro, says, “Accountability and locator systems, as well as overall communications, are where technology is heading.”

Beyond Breathing

According to Jeff Shipley, senior product manager SCBA at Sperian (now part of Honeywell), firefighters are beginning to look at SCBA accessories more. Communications are one area Shipley says there has been interest, as well as air management. SCBA manufacturers across the board have been improving their communications capabilities and heads-up displays (HUDs) to address both areas.

SCBA HUD Innovations

SCBAs communicate in a variety of ways—via HUDs, via telemetry for accountability, and via audible alarms.

In the case of HUDs, manufacturers are devising new ways of enhancing the information communicated to firefighters and the location of the displays. “We offer a heads-up display called the Digital Dashboard,” says Shipley. “It is a reliable and easy-to-read, hard-wired HUD that provides firefighters with an LCD illustration of critical air management information.” Whereas traditional HUDs display “milestone” information such as full, ¾, ½, and ¼ of air remaining, Sperian’s Digital Dashboard provides a bar graph display that provides 18 indicators in between these milestones.

According to Shipley, a firefighter knows more precisely how much air he has, allowing the firefighter to make critical decisions about when to exit a hazardous atmosphere. “More importantly, the Digital Dashboard provides a graphical illustration of the minutes of air remaining in the cylinder based on the user’s work rate, the amount of air he is breathing, and the percentage of air remaining in the cylinder,” says Shipley.

Interspiro’s DDU (Digital Display Unit) shows cylinder pressure graphically, psi, and time remaining based on the current rate of air consumption. Its HUD is available inside and outside the face piece.

MSA has moved its HUD into the face piece with the introduction of the FireHawk M7 I-HUD. Besides moving it to a place that’s easier for the firefighter to see, it “allows for low profile and lighter weight on the face piece, as well as better balance,” says Henry Fonzi III, product line manager, first responder SAR at MSA. “The FireHawk M7 I-HUD is 40 percent lighter than the external M7 HUD. It also reduces the profile on the face and is simply integrated into the face piece.”

Dräeger’s PSS 5000 SCBA allows users to monitor their air and indicates the time remaining until the bottle is empty via its Sentinel 7000 communication system. With the system, real-time information such as time-to-whistle and cylinder pressure appears on a lightweight, handheld electronic gauge display and/or a face mask-mounted HUD.

Communications Enhancements

According to Shipley, everyone is interested in SCBA communications capabilities. “Through the years, communication products have been the bane of the fire service,” he says. “Voice amps were not loud and radio communication products were challenging.” He says Sperian addressed these issues with its CommCommand communication products. Its voice amp is loud but does not have distortion when a person is excited and yelling inside the face piece. “We also offer a wireless communications product that offers easy linking between the wireless module on the face piece and the lapel mic,” he adds.

SpiroCom is Interspiro’s communication product. It is a voice-activated two-way radio that provides constant communication with a team, hands-free. “There are 16 groups, or channels, to accommodate up to 16 different teams on the fire scene,” says Van Derveen. He adds, “I think that communications are becoming the next critical component on the fire scene next to the main purpose of the SCBA, which is supplying air to the firefighter.”

ISI’s Viking Z Seven Plus pack features a control console system that houses the electronics package and offers built-in PASS manual activation, a radio communications connection, and Voice Amplification System (VAS) speaker with ten level settings to reduce breathing noise without impacting communications.

Scott Safety’s EPIC line of communications products, including both voice amplification and wireless radio interface devices, “has seen a large increase in adoption over the past few months and continues to be well received,” says Jeff Emery, fire services marketing manager for Scott Safety.

Dräeger also offers a full complement of communications gear with its FPS 7000 face mask.

Accountability Systems

Keeping track of firefighters on the fireground can be difficult at times. Tag systems have helped account for the location of different crews at a fire scene. However, as technology has advanced, systems have been added to SCBAs to help ICs stay abreast of crew locations, with the added benefit of being able to monitor how much air firefighters have.

“Overall, much of the developing technology for SCBA is around accountability technologies,” says Emery. “This includes communications technologies, improved alarm notification, and personal location devices. This is an area where technology is evolving rapidly, is leading to improved situational awareness for firefighters, and has reduced the time it might take for a team to respond to an emergency situation.”

MSA’s Accountability System is also a fireground management system. Each base station can monitor up to 50 firefighters. The air pack’s PASS transmits to incident command the firefighter’s name, team assignment, cylinder pressure, service-time remaining, PASS alarms (motion or manual), thermal alarms, battery status, radio connectivity, and evacuation acknowledgment. Personalized ID tags for each firefighter tell incident command exactly who is on scene.

Scott Safety’s SEMS II Emergency Management system is one accountability system. With the system, each Scott Air Pak SCBA serves as a repeater to feed critical data from each firefighter back to a base station manned by an IC, according to Emery. “This allows visibility of SCBA air levels, firefighter assignments, and any PASS alarms, allowing incident command to more quickly anticipate and react to potential emergency situations,” he says.

Shipley adds, “Chiefs and incident managers are looking for a tool that is easy to use and provides an abundance of information at a glance.” According to Shipley, this includes knowing the status of firefighters on scene. “Information they are looking for includes air management, the firefighters’ physical status, PASS status, and what apparatus is on scene,” he says. Sperian had its Crew Trac’r telemetry product in its booth at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) this year to get market feedback prior to launching the system to the fire service.

Interspiro’s accountability system is called SpiroLink. It is available on its SpiromaticS7 SCBA. SprioLink provides an IC with SCBA data for every firefighter on the scene, including PASS status, remaining air, remaining time, and total time.

ISI’s TEAMS air management system allows a command post to have access to cylinder pressure, real-time temperatures, PASS status, and SCBA battery status of firefighters located inside a building.

Some accountability systems also communicate evacuation orders to interior firefighters. Visual and audible signals alert firefighters, and they can acknowledge the evacuation orders.

SCBA to the Rescue

The role of SCBA in locating downed firefighters has also expanded. At one time, PASS alarms hooked to the straps of SCBA were useless if firefighters didn’t remember to turn them on. Along came integrated PASS alarms that activated upon turning on SCBA cylinders. Later, lights on the packs would activate with the PASS alarm to help locate downed firefighters. Today, the packs themselves can be used as beacons.

ISI’s Mark Williamson, product and marketing manager, says there has been interest in ISI’s updated Viking Z Seven and accessories. One accessory is the ISI Echo Series ultrasonic firefighter tracking system used to locate downed firefighters. It employs an ISI EchoTracer beacon mounted on the Viking Z Seven Plus SCBA. An ISI EchoSeeker tracking device mounts to an ISI 3500 thermal imaging camera for combination ultrasonic tracking and thermal viewing or a noncamera handheld tracking device.

Interspiro’s SpiroPulse activates when the S7 SCBA’s PASS goes into full alarm. Its ultrasonic signal provides a homing beacon to indicate the best path for a RIT to find a missing firefighter.

Scott’s Pak-Tracker Locator is a distress alarm system that helps locate individuals at distances of greater than 900 feet line of sight. It operates on the principle of the 2.4-GHz RF signal—high- frequency radio waves that penetrate smoke and structural barriers. Search and rescue personnel use a handheld receiver to detect the signal of the firefighter’s transmitter that he wears or that is integrated into his SCBA.

Low-Profile SCBA

Three companies have low-profile SCBA prototypes. Feedback has generally been positive, according to Stan Sanders, CEO, founder, and president of Vulcore Industrial LLC, which developed the pressure vessels used in low-profile pack design. If there is one area that made Vulcore “go back to the drawing board,” it was the length of the original prototype. So, the company created a system that would employ a four-cell, eight-chamber system. Sanders says, “Basically what we did is we took all the information from the original five-cell system and we reengineered the cells to what we call the 808 High-Flex System. We just basically made it narrower, shorter, and more flexible.” The Vulcore product is now called the Slim-System. Originally Sanders anticipated starting full production at the end of 2012, with Ultra Electronics producing the product. However, Ultra has dropped out of the program. He now hopes to begin shipping product by the end of 2013. Sanders says the feedback remains positive.

CHRIS Mc LOONE, associate editor of Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, is a 17-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with Weldon Fire Company (Glenside, PA). He has been a writer and editor for more than 15 years. While with Fire Engineering, he contributed to the May 2006 issue, a Jesse H. Neal Award winner for its coverage of the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery.

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