Fire Apparatus Drivers Using SCBA?

keeping it safe Robert Tutterow

Driver-Operator Use of SCBA

Should the driver-operator use a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) while on the scene of a working fire? And for clarity, this means actually breathing the SCBA’s air as opposed to simply wearing the SCBA. Based on emerging information, the answer to that question is yes! This certainly goes against the traditional mindset.


Robert Tutterow

Why should the driver-operator use an SCBA when he is not engaged in the firefight and might not be wearing any personal protective equipment? Let’s take a deep-dive into the environment of the driver-operator. It is now known that carcinogens are prevalent in the warm zone of a fire scene. Historically, if we tested the air for safe removal of the SCBA, we used a CO meter. If the CO meter indicated the air was safe to breathe, then the SCBA came off. However, we have learned that carcinogens are very prevalent despite CO levels. And, there is always the possibility of a wind shift that could engulf the driver-operator’s position.

The air quality around a working fire scene is not as safe as once believed. This revelation was proven in an unexpected result of a carcinogen study on live fires conducted by the Illinois Fire Service Institute. The research study showed that a significant amount of the contaminants came from the diesel exhaust of the pumping engine. So, with the combined contaminants from the fire and the diesel exhaust, the driver-operator is likely facing a far riskier health hazard than previously thought. This scenario also applies to vehicle and dumpster fires.

The driver-operator is also exposed to diesel exhaust at nonemergency events. For example, career drivers-operators are exposed during their daily apparatus checkouts if the apparatus is not connected to a source-capture diesel exhaust system. Likewise, volunteer drivers-operators are exposed during weekly apparatus checkouts if the apparatus is not connected to a source-capture system.

Dawn Bolstad-Johnson, MPH, CIH, CSP, FAIHA wrote a book titled EXPOSED—Carcinogenic Exposures on the Fireground and 11 Work Practices to Minimize the Risk, published in late 2018. She is an industrial hygienist with a background in emergency services, including 19 years with the Safety Section of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. In her book, she clearly outlines the hazardous carcinogens found at fire scenes and fire stations. One of her focus areas is the driver-engineer, and she provides a case study of Phoenix Fire Department Engineer Andy Brunelle, who acquired job-related cancer. An interesting quote from Engineer Brunelle is, “Wearing an SCBA is inconvenient for an hour, but getting a cancer diagnosis is inconvenient for the rest of your life.”


The role of the driver-operator varies from department to department. For some departments, he remains at the pump panel throughout the event to monitor the pump operation. For other departments, he may assist with getting hose and equipment deployed as needed during the event. There could be an argument that wearing an SCBA would interfere with some of these tasks. Certainly, the added weight is a slight disadvantage, but the driver-operator is not entering a heated environment and is not likely to be engaged in strenuous activity for any significant length of time.

Brunelle thinks it might be a good idea to have a breathing airline type cascade system instead of an SCBA. Another thought is that the driver-operator could use a 60-minute cylinder to minimize the need for another firefighter to assist in a bottle exchange. Note that I have not mentioned wearing protective coats, pants, hoods, gloves, or footwear compliant with National Fire Protection Association 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, in this column. The emphasis is on breathing air, and particulate masks are not acceptable. However, it is a good practice for the driver-operator to wear coveralls that can be quickly removed once the fire is extinguished. The coveralls will protect the station work uniform or other clothing worn from airborne carcinogens.

The famous quote from Yogi Berra is definitely applicable here: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”


ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

No posts to display