Low-Profile SCBA Prototype Gets Positive Reviews In Limited Trial

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A firefighter wearing a low-profile SCBA prototype participates in a limited field evaluation last month at the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Training Academy in Maryland.
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A firefighter climbs through a window and then bails out during last month’s field evaluation of a next-generation, low-profile SCBA being developed by the IAFF and MSA in a government-funded project. (Photos by Mark E. Brady)

A next-generation, low-profile SCBA prototype built by MSA for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) drew positive reviews in a limited field evaluation last month, as well as during the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis.

Participants in the field evaluation did not test working models because federal Department of Transportation approval is needed before they can be operated with breathing air. The SCBA’s pioneering feature is its slender array of small interconnected cylinders, called pressure vessels, which are less than half the diameter of a traditional SCBA cylinder.

Because the pressure vessel array does not fit within any existing DOT equipment category, a special permit is required, according to Jeffrey Stull, whose Texas firm, International Personnel Protection Inc., is working with the IAFF on the project.
He said project team members were “fairly confident” they would receive a DOT permit by the end of May.

Once the permit is secured, Stull said, another field evaluation will be scheduled, probably for late summer. “The next field test will be conducted under live fireground conditions with breathing air capabilities,” he said.

He stressed that the goal of the IAFF project is to determine whether the pressure vessel array, also called a flat pack, has potential as a replacement part that manufacturers would build into future SCBA. “It’s not a project that’s going to result in a commercially available product at its conclusion,” he said. “We are simply trying to demonstrate that this technology has merit.”

If the array can be produced at a cost that is not prohibitive, a commercial low-profile SCBA might be available by 2012, when a new edition of the National Fire Protection Association 1981 standard governing SCBA is scheduled to take effect.

However, some people believe a commercial version could be produced sooner. One of them is the IAFF’s Richard Duffy, who is responsible for development and implementation of occupational safety and health activities through his position as executive assistant to the union president. “We’re pretty optimistic that this is going to happen in a shorter time frame than people believe because we think there’s a big demand for it,” he said. “We believe this could be certified under the current edition of the [NFPA 1981] standard.

Mike Rupert, MSA’s first responder products group director who is a member of the NFPA committee responsible for updating the SCBA standard, said his company is going to carefully examine the existing NFPA standard, as well as monitor what happens with the update.

“The standard really needs to be studied to make sure it doesn’t inhibit the development of this kind of a system because it clearly appears to be of interest and value to the fire service,” Rupert said. “There may be language in [the standard] that inadvertently limits the ability to develop a system like this.”

He said two low-profile SCBA prototypes built by MSA through a contract with IAFF drew an “overwhelmingly positive” response from firefighters who saw them displayed at the FDIC trade show in April.

“We were clear that at this point there may not be significant weight savings, and that did not seem to be a concern,” Rupert said. “The length, though, was something they hope to see improvement on because the system is long on the back.”

On the positive side, he said, firefighters were excited about the slender profile and improved center of gravity, which puts less stress on the body. “They liked the aesthetics of the system as well,” Rupert said. “They thought it looked good, that it looked modern, but from a functional standpoint, it was really lowering the profile and moving the weight in closer to the body.”

Length

Stull said the only complaint he heard is that the pressure vessel array is too long. “For a shorter individual, it could potentially be a problem,” he said, “but we didn’t see that yesterday [at the field evaluation].”

The field trial was conducted May 18 at the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Training Academy in Maryland where low-profile SCBA were subjected to a variety of simulated firefighting activities and ergonomic measurements were taken to determine aspects such as comfort and the ability to reach and bend.

Since 2008, the IAFF has received $2.7 million from the Department of Homeland Security to develop a lighter, thinner and more flexible SCBA. The pressure vessel array’s design and dimensions changed a number of times as the IAFF and its partners strived to meet a requirement that the array be able to withstand three times its expected operating pressure of 4,500 psi. “That was a challenge to optimize the pressure vessel while minimizing material in weight and size to achieve that goal,” Stull said. “It took the better part of a year and a half.”

The pressure vessels use a plastic lining instead of the aluminum lining used in conventional composite cylinders. The plastic linings are braided with para-Aramid fiber, according to the IAFF, and then wound with pre-impregnated carbon fiber to provide the necessary structural integrity and durability.

Attributes

A soft cover serves as a replacement for the backframe used on conventional SCBA and provides attachment points for some SCBA components and a harness system.

When the IAFF won federal funding for the low-profile SCBA project, significant weight savings over conventional cylinders were anticipated. While that hasn’t happened, Stull said the pressure vessel array has other strong attributes.

“It will be more a profile and center of gravity impact than anything else,” he said.

MSA was selected by the IAFF over two other SCBA manufacturers – Scott Health & Safety and Sperian Protection – to build the low-profile prototype, and Rupert expects more modifications before his company’s IAFF contract ends in September.

“The units aren’t perfect and we know that,” he said. “That’s what the project is all about, to make the necessary refinements based upon feedback and testing.”

If the IAFF project does lead to commercial production of pressure vessel arrays for SCBA, changes will have to be made to other products, such as SCBA seats, filling stations and storage cabinets. Rupert said representatives of some companies that make those products have been in contact with MSA.

“A number of those manufacturers of related equipment and components that would be affected by something like this have conveyed their support and interest in working with us in the event this would be commercialized,” he said.

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