NFPA Considers Standard For Emergency Escape Filters

The manufacturer of a new emergency escape filter for air masks has begun production while hoping for third-party support for its product and creation of an industry standard.

“The fact is until a standard does become available there still needs to be some type of protection out there,” said Dave Hurley, the vice president of operations at Essex PB&R of St. Louis, Mo., the company that is making the Last Chance filter for self-contained breathing apparatus.

A standard from the National Fire Protection Association is probably years away, although an NFPA task group is working toward one.

“I think it’s a tool we need, but if it doesn’t do the job we’re asking it to do, it’s a false sense of security,” 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 and a member of the Respiratory Escape Device Task Group. 

He said the task group’s goal is to develop a proposed standard that could be implemented for the 2012 revision cycle. To accomplish that, he said the group trying to develop a draft standard before the end of this year that could be sent out for review and comment.

“Ultimately,” he said, “it goes to the [NFPA] standards council, and they can decide they don’t want any piece of this, that it’s just too controversial and not the direction they want to take.”

Meanwhile, interest in the product appears high, although Essex PB&R is waiting for that to translate into sales. Hurley said his company receives requests for quotes almost daily and has responded to requests totaling more than 10,000 units. “I think it’s a lot of people kicking tires to see what the price is,” he said. “Just because you get all the requests for quotes doesn’t mean they are going to buy.”

Waiting For Validation

Fire departments may be waiting for some kind of validation of the product, which got good reviews from firefighters who tried it during a live-burn test conducted last fall in Connecticut with participation from the Yale University School of Medicine.

The test was organized by Frank Ricci, a Connecticut firefighter who was hired by Essex PB&R as a consultant to promote the product and try to obtain third-party approval of it. He said the New Haven and Naugatuck fire departments in Connecticut have approached the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration seeking “an interpretation of OSHA requirements” as they relate to the Last Chance filter.

Different Packaging

Essex, according to Ricci, committed to working with OSHA, NFPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the effort to develop some kind of standard for certifying emergency escape filters.

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.

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, the Essex vice president, said his company’s Last Chance 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.

Hurley and Ricci are insistent that the Last Chance filter is designed to provide 15 minutes of breathable air for escape-only, one-time use. But one of the concerns about escape filters is that they could be used improperly by firefighters in place of a self-contained breathing apparatus or to try to extend time inside a burning building.

Bernzweig, who is on the NFPA task group, said that is one of the issues the group is certain to address. “Firefighters might want to stretch it,” he said. “If it is acceptable to use for escape, why can’t we use it for fighting fires? It turns into a gray area.”

Another issue, he said, is oxygen. A firefighter using the Last Chance filter, which converts carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and filters out toxic gases, needs some oxygen to survive.
“Since the 1970s OSHA has defined the fire environment as [immediately dangerous to life or health] and oxygen deficient,” he said, “and they’re kind of stepping out there to say it’s no longer oxygen deficient.”

Oxygen As An Issue

Oxygen levels were measured during the Connecticut live-burn test and never dropped below 20 percent, according to Ricci, who was the only firefighter involved in the test to do a changeover from his SCBA to the filter. Participating firefighters would have been pulled from the burning building if the oxygen level had fallen below 20 percent, he said.

Bernzweig said one of his concerns about the Connecticut test is that it was set up to validate the Last Chance filter.

“They measured oxygen, but they measured it in a single-family dwelling up near the fire while it was burning, and that’s not really where firefighters are getting killed,” he said. “The fact is there’s not a whole lot of data about the atmospheric concentrations in the areas where firefighters become disoriented, become trapped, become lost.”

Another issue for the task group to explore, he said, is what level of respiration a filter needs to be able to handle.

Respiratory Volume

“When a firefighter becomes lost and trapped and disoriented and he runs out of air, he’s doing it at the end of his work cycle,” he said. “He’s just done a lot of work, he’s probably out of breath, breathing heavy as it is, and now you add to that the stress of getting lost, and his respiratory minute volume is going to be through the roof.”

While the NFPA task group wrestles with those issues in consideration of developing a standard for emergency escape filters, Essex PB&R is marketing its product and the Last Chance filter is an option in one of the largest SCBA requests for proposals ever put out by fire departments. A consortium of 30 fire departments in the Los Angeles area issued the request last month and the contract is expected to involve about 5,000 SCBA units.

The number of escape filters could be even higher. “We may treat it like you do face pieces where you go one per member instead of one per SCBA,” said Los Angeles City Assistant Chief Don Frazeur.

Frazeur traveled to Connecticut last fall to monitor the live burn. “After seeing that test,” he said, “I hold a lot of promise for that product.”
Hurley said Essex PB&R has developed Last Chance filter adapters for air masks manufactured by MSA, Scott Health & Safety, Sperian and Dräger and has submitted filters to those 
companies for their own testing. He said he has not received any of those test results.

He said his company has also been talking with representatives of the four manufacturers about pricing.  “I’ve been hoping that we could make an affordable price to where they would just include it in their new SCBAs,” he said. “Then all of our distributors would sell replacement units and sell filters for the SCBAs that are currently in the field.”

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