Grace PASS Certification Boosts Interspiros SCBA

This spring Grace Industries, Inc., became the only manufacturer of a stand-alone personal alert safety system (PASS) device to attain National Fire Protection Association certification under a demanding new standard that took effect last fall.

That was welcome news at Interspiro, Inc., a company that uses the Grace PASS on its self-contained breathing apparatus, which was certified by NFPA seven months earlier.

“It was frustrating,” said Interspiro President Mike Brookman. “We were the first with SCBA certification, but we were almost last with the PASS approval.”

Despite the delay, he said the Grace PASS gives Interspiro advantages over its competitors because the device is integrated with the company’s Spiromatic S6 SCBA, but can also be removed from its SCBA holster and attached to turnout gear.

 “There are plenty of situations where incident commanders would want to know the whereabouts and safety of their responders and those responders may not be wearing SCBA,” Brookman said. “When it’s a stand-alone PASS, it’s a Grace PASS. When it’s an integrated PASS, it’s an Interspiro PASS.”

The Spiromatic S6 was on display at the Fire Department Instructors’ Conference trade show in Indianapolis last month, as were Grace’s newly-certified PASS products.

Grace offers a range of PASS devices, from basic inexpensive motion-sensing units to others that display temperature and are capable of two-way communication with a base station as part of an accountability system that can handle up to 3,000 individuals, according to Jack Jarboe, the company’s vice president of regulatory affairs and a retired division fire chief from Prince George’s County, Md.

“We’re using software that we tie into our telemetry system so it keeps track of everybody,” he said. “You know where you placed everybody, and when an alarm goes off you’ve got a pretty good indicator of where they’re at.”

In addition to alerting commanders to firefighters in trouble, the Grace accountability system can send an evacuation alarm to specific firefighters or all firefighters at an incident. “You really need both things,” Jarboe said. “You need immediate notification of firefighters in distress and you need to be able to get everybody out immediately when you think the building integrity is being compromised.”

Before the revised NFPA standards for SCBA and PASS alarms took effect last year, Grace was one of a number of companies that made stand-alone PASS devices. Now, according to Jarboe, it is the only one.

“We’re the last man standing,” he said. “It’s a competitive thing. It takes a lot of capital to stay in this business in order to provide firefighters with the level of safety they need.”

The manufacturer suggested retail prices of Grace Pass devices range from about $475 to $1,300.

There continues to be a market for stand-alone PASS devices, Jarboe said, because they are affordable, because they can be used separate from or as a backup to SCBA integrated PASS alarms and because Grace offers telemetry and an accountability system.

“Our philosophy has been we like to have the stand-alone PASS go wherever the firefighter goes,” he said.

Houston Uses Grace PASS

The Houston Fire Department has used the Grace accountability system for a number of years and some other large departments outfit their firefighters with two PASS alarms as well, using the Grace as a backup to PASS integrated with SCBA. “We’re starting to see more and more of that,” he said.

But Jarboe said the majority of his company’s fire customers are the small departments that make up the largest segment of the U.S. fire service. He estimated about 300 fire departments are using Grace PASS devices with telemetry.

While the difficulty in meeting the 2007 revised NFPA standards dramatically cut the number of companies making PASS devices, the number of SCBA manufacturers was reduced as well, from seven to six.

Both NFPA 1981, the SCBA standard, and NFPA 1982, the PASS standard, were revised in response to concerns about the reliability of electronic PASS alarms raised by investigations of firefighter fatalities. Rigorous new tests were established to improve the performance of the equipment in harsh conditions. 

In Jarboe’s view, the NFPA standards for SCBA and PASS were raised to the level already set by NFPA for personal protective equipment. 

“PPE got better and better and enabled firefighters to penetrate further faster, and now you’re taking electronics into that same environment,” he said. “Five hundred degrees is the same temperature at which they test the PPE, the turnout coats, turnout pants and gloves. So as I see it, everything is on the same plane now. Everything you’re carrying into that environment is tested at 500 degrees for 5 minutes.”

Interspiro was the only SCBA manufacturer to have its unit certified when the new SCBA and PASS standards took effect last Sept. 1. But the company also needed to have a certified PASS, and that did not happen until Grace got its letter of certification in mid-March.

MSA Responder

In the meantime Mine Safety Appliances, Scott Health & Safety, Avon-ISI and Sperian Fire all achieved certification of both their SCBA and PASS devices. The only other active SCBA manufacturer, Dräger Safety, recently had its SCBA certified, but is still awaiting PASS certification.

MSA was the first company to get both SCBA and PASS certification and recently won NFPA certification for a second SCBA unit, the FireHawk M7 Responder, which was exhibited at the FDIC trade show last month.

The FireHawk M7 Responder, which can be converted to an air purifying respirator for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) environments, was used by MSA to win an Air Force contract for 9,000 SCBA this year, according to Mike Rupert, the company’s first responder products group manager. 

Two large fire service contracts for SCBA are scheduled to be awarded within a month or so – one in Phoenix for about 800 units and the other in the Los Angeles area for some 5,000 units for a consortium of fire departments.

Big Bid Deadlines

Brookman, the president of Interspiro, was worried early this year about being able to compete for those contracts because his company needed NFPA certification for Grace PASS devices in order to submit a bid.

But while tending Interspiro’s booth at FDIC, he was relaxed and affable as he recalled frantic meetings and telephone calls during the weeks and days leading up to the bid deadlines – March 26 in Phoenix and April 4 in Los Angeles.

Interspiro, he said, got verbal confirmation of PASS certification one week before the Phoenix deadline and received its official letter just two days before submitting its bid.

Remarkable Coincidence

“If this was a screenplay for a movie,” he said, “it would have been thrown out as unrealistic.”

Brookman views the two contracts, which set similar specifications, as a potential turning point in the SCBA market. Interspiro is a subsidiary of a company based in Stockholm, Sweden, and he puts his company’s market share in the United States at between 5 and10 percent, far behind the two leading manufacturers, MSA and Scott. But he believes Interspiro has a realistic 
chance to prevail.

“It’s a remarkable coincidence that Phoenix and Los Angeles should have coincident bids,” he said. “There could be a significant shake-up.”

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