SCBA Makers Join Project For Flexible Flat Air Pack

new SCBA pressure vessel array
The new SCBA pressure vessel array that is under development has a significantly lower profile, allowing firefighters greater mobility in confined spaces. The unit pictured above is a prototype and does not represent the latest design of the IAFF project team, although it is similar. A technology demonstration unit is expected to be ready for public viewing this summer. (Vulcore Industrial Photo)

A revolutionary change may be in the air for self-contained breathing apparatus, one that has a couple of SCBA manufacturers secretly redesigning their systems and has some fire departments considering delaying SCBA purchases in anticipation of much lighter, lower-profile units sometime next year.

The catalyst is a new concept for storing air in a flexible flat pack that is about 2 inches thick and could replace conventional SCBA cylinders, which are more than 6 inches in diameter.

A low-profile flat air storage pack would provide clear advantages in terms of confined space mobility, but SCBA industry executives say the key element that will determine its worth is how much weight it will save. Nobody is sure because the anticipated weight savings depends to a great extent on how SCBA manufacturers reconfigure their systems to accommodate the new air storage vessel, which is still under development.

The flat pack was invented by Stan Sanders, an Indiana man who operates his own company, Sanders Industrial Design, and has worked with the SCUBA industry and the space program. He created a new company, Vuclore Industrial, to develop the SCBA technology. His partners in the project are the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the union that represents nearly 300,000 firefighters, and a Texas research firm, International Personnel Protection Inc., headed by Jeffrey Stull, who is a spokesman for the group.

“The logistics of carrying these flat replacement arrays compared to round cylinders is going to be a whole lot easier,” Stull said. “Any weight savings is going to reduce the amount of stress on the firefighter by lowering the burden of the personal protective equipment ensemble, the SCBA being the heaviest component.”

He referred to the flat pack as an array because it is made up of a number of pressure vessels – at the time he spoke seven – but he cautioned that the configuration could change as it evolved. The array had been subjected to three times its working pressure of 4,500 psi, had been through ballistics tests and had been connected to SCBA in field trials with firefighters.

Design Modification

In late March Richard Duffy, who is responsible for development and implementation of all IAFF occupational safety and health activities through his position as executive assistant to the union president, said the array’s design was being modified and the number of pressure vessels was being cut from seven to five.

“This will reduce approximately 2 inches from the array width while only increasing its depth by less than a half inch,” he said. “We further expect some additional reduction of weight from this change.”

Duffy said the design was changed in response to suggestions from the project team’s industry partners. He emphasized that weight savings from the flat pack will vary from department to department, depending on how firefighters are equipped.

“Not all firefighters have access to the latest cylinder technology, and most are not using 45-minute cylinders,” he said. “Thus their realization of weight reductions will be more dramatic… especially if they are using early generation composite and wrapped cylinders or, in many areas, full steel or aluminum cylinders.”

Sanders, the IAFF and Stull are working under a 15-month $2 million con-

tract signed with the Department of Homeland Security last summer to produce a technology demonstration unit and take Sanders’ invention to market.

 

Stull said he is confident the demonstration unit will be available for public viewing at trade shows this summer.

The development team will display a mockup at the IAFF booth at the annual Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis this month. “We are not creating a new SCBA, as much as a major replacement part, which, in turn, will affect the configuration of the SCBA because the shape, size and weight are so different,” he said.”We’re working with the SCBA industry to show them what these new pressure vessels are going to look like and to have them develop ways that this will integrate with their SCBA in place of a traditional cylinder. This is not trivial for them to reconfigure their SCBA.”

Actually, Stull’s team is working with part of the SCBA industry. Just two of the six SCBA manufacturers who produce units certified to National Fire Protection Association standards are involved in the project. He declined to identify them, saying their identities and work are subject to confidentiality agreements. But he acknowledged that the two companies will have a jump on the competition if Sanders’ invention proves its worth.

“Certain manufacturers would have an advantage simply because they’ve been involved and had knowledge before other manufacturers,” he said.”But for advancing it to the marketplace, there really isn’t any other path. Unfortunately, we have limited resources to demonstrate this technology.”

Other elements of the industry will be affected as well as SCBA manufacturers, including companies that make apparatus seats and brackets and SCBA filling stations, all of which are designed to fit conventional cylinders. But perhaps nobody will be affected more than The Luxfer Group and Structural Composites Industries (SCI), the two leading manufacturers of conventional cylinders.

Stull is guarded when talking about the flat pack. He said he is concerned about misinformation, mostly relating to exaggerated claims of anticipated weight savings that can raise unrealistic expectations.

In an article he co-wrote with Sanders and others, Stull said:”When the [flat pack] array is combined with a soft cover and harness assembly, it weighs nearly 50 percent less than SCBA with conventional metal-lined cylinders.” But the article did not give any weight numbers, and weights can vary widely, depending on a number of variables, including the manufacturer, the cylinder type and the number of accessories.

About Six Pounds

Steve Weinstein, the senior SCBA product manager for Sperian Respiratory Protection, said his company’s unit with a 45minute cylinder and an average number of accessories weighs about 24 pounds.

Mike Rupert, MSA’s first responder product group director, said the weight of a typical MSA SCBA unit with an empty 45-minute cylinder is slightly less than 23 pounds. The weight of the cylinder alone is 9 pounds, 7 ounces, he said.

Sanders’ empty flat pack array with seven pressure vessels and a manifold, gauge and valve, which are integrated into the array, weighs about 6 pounds, according to Stull.And Duffy said the array with five pressure vessels should be lighter.

The inner cores of the pressure vessels are made of a molded high-temperature plastic called Hytrel, which was developed by DuPont.”The pressure vessels are wrapped with Kevlar,” Stull said, “and wound with a pre-impregnated carbon fiber, which gives it the ultimate strength to meet burst standards and heat resistance as well.”

Air Permeability

Unlike conventional cylinders, there is no fragmentation hazard should any of the vessels rupture. Most plastic liners are vulnerable to air permeability over time, Stull said, but a key attribute of the Hytrel is that it is able to retain air for a relatively long period of time.”The materials to accomplish that came into being over the last 10 years,” he noted.

Stull’s reference in his article to a soft cover and harness assembly is where the development team hopes to achieve additional weight savings beyond the flat pack itself, which measured 1.9 inches by 16 inches by almost 24 inches with seven pressure vessels.

Two-Cell Pressure Cells

The array, expected to be a 45-minuterated system, is made up of two-cell pressure cells. “It’s like two hot dogs that are connected together,” Stull said. “That is one pressure vessel, and the pressure vessels are hooked by one end to a manifold.”

The connections between the pressure cells enable the unit to be flexible.

“The array can actually flex both vertically with the connection between the two cells and horizontally by using a flexible manifold,” he said. “This pressure vessel array and flexible manifold will then be put into a soft cover that attaches to shoulder straps in a harness system to support the SCBA and the remaining components.”

The soft cover could be made with a textile or related material, but it would have to be durable.

Stull said the flat packs design and flexibility should eliminate the need for the back frame that holds conventional SCBA cylinders.

“The weight savings are substantial, and they become even more substantial if SCBA manufacturers reexamine their current systems,” he said. “Obviously this is a big change for them. There’s a lot of components attached to the back frame, and if we’re getting rid of that, it’s a challenge.”

Stull calls the flat pack development project an opportunity for the industry. “The SCBA manufacturers who will be most successful in introducing this technology will be the ones who totally redesign their systems,” he said, “from the first-stage regulator to other attachments, including battery packs.”

Positive Response

The companies directly involved in the project have been receptive to the idea of a new generation of SCBA. “It’s been a complete positive response,” Stull said.”We have not had anyone who said, ‘No thank you.'”

Meanwhile, executives at the companies not directly involved wish they knew more. A number of them said they had contacted the development team to try to get information or to let the team know they were interested in participating.

“It’s an intriguing concept that we’ll be watching,” said Will Antunes, SCI’s national manager of direct SCBA sales. “Unfortunately there’s just not enough information out there for us to assess it fully.” He has had some contact with Stull by e-mail.

SCI was responsible for the last significant advancement in SCBA cylinder technology in the mid-1990s with the introduction of carbon composite cylinders. Antunes said his company’s lightest 45-minute, 4,500-psi cylinder weighs just under 9 pounds.

Orion Goe, Luxfer’s international marketing manager for SCBA products, said he contacted Stull last month to assess whether there was any opportunity for his company to get involved in either a research and development role or as a manufacturer. He said Stull told him he would convey his interest to Sanders.

According to Goe, Luxfer is the dominant cylinder manufacturer in North America and supplies the two leading SCBA manufacturers, Scott Health & Safety and MSA. He said Luxfer produces North America’s lightest 45minute cylinder at 7.9 pounds.

“We’re always looking to try to reduce weight,” he said, “and reduce the burden on the firefighter.”

Stull said no decisions have been made with respect to who will manufacture the new flat pack pressure vessels if they make it to market. “It is conceivable that any of the existing suppliers could be a source for this technology once it is demonstrated and commercialized,” he said.

As for the SCBA manufacturers, MSA appears to be one of the two unidentified companies working with the development team.

Rupert, MSA’s first responder product group director, was cautious in his comments when interviewed, and said he was unable to disclose whether his company was involved. “We’re not in a position to provide details on the program itself,” he said. “It’s confidential as far as who the participants are.”

He did note, however, that any redesign of an SCBA would require recertification by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and testing to meet NFPA standards, which would take many months.

Regarding the claims of as much as 50 percent in weight savings, he said, “They are very ambitious and certainly what the fire service would want. We’re here to support the [flat pack development] program in whatever way we can.”

Weinstein, Sperian’s senior SCBA product manager, said his company has been in touch with the flat pack development team. “We approached them,” he said. “They did not approach us.”

Assessing Benefits

He said manufacturers need more information to determine whether the weight savings would be a large enough benefit to the fire service to support the investment that would be required to reconfigure SCBA units.

“Everyone is willing and ready to work with them if it makes sense to do that,” Weinstein said. “We’d all have to completely redo our backpacks, probably some portion of our pneumatics and we’d have to reposition and change our electronics. It’s a major development project.”

He said he is aware of an increasing level of excitement in the fire service about the flat pack project. “There will be a lot of excitement among the manufacturers if it’s clearly shown that this could be revolutionary, that there are tangible benefits for firefighters.”

But Weinstein said he is concerned about unrealistic expectations for the flat pack and he knows of one fire department that is delaying a planned SCBA purchase. “They said they’re going to wait until the end of this year so they can buy this new one,” he said.

No Idea On Cost

While a technology demonstration unit using the flat pack is expected to be ready for public viewing this summer, Stull said he does not anticipate an SCBA equipped with the product will be available for purchase until at least the middle of 2010 “unless there are extremely aggressive manufacturers.”

And he said he has no idea what the the unit would cost.

One critical task for the development team is to obtain a special permit from the federal Department of Transportation, a process that is under way. “All pressurized cylinders are subject to [DOT] regulations,” Stull said. “This technology is so different than what is covered in federal regulations that we have to get a special permit.”

He said DOT requires an extensive documentation package with testing results that demonstrate the effectiveness of the technology, its safety and performance.

Stull and the development team are working with a technical advisory committee comprised of experienced SCBA users, primarily firefighters. “Everyone on the committee has been very, very positive about this,” he said.

One committee member, Seattle Fire Department Capt. Gene Zimmerman, is particularly enthusiastic about the project. In a glowing report posted on the Internet, he wrote: “Forget McCain, Obama or Hillary! I say Stan Sanders for President… If Mr. Sanders has his way, he will do more for you and me than any single president in our lifetime.”

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