Should self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) be housed inside the cab?
It is a question that usually gets answered very quickly if you think it is blasphemous that they are not in the cab. The genesis of this column stems from a virtual meeting about contamination that I attended when this subject came up. In the end, the consensus was that it is okay to keep clean SCBA in the cab but not dirty or contaminated SCBA.
This begs the question: How clean is clean? That is a question being discussed and researched as it relates to personal protective equipment (PPE). As we are aware, the focus on the cleaning of PPE has been primarily on turnout gear coats and pants. In a recent field study on preliminary exposure reduction (PER)—i.e., initial on-scene cleaning—it was discovered that the SCBA remained more contaminated than the helmet, hood, gloves, boots, coat, and pants. The field study involved spraying the firefighter (while wearing full PPE) with a product called “Glo Germ,” which simulates contaminants. The firefighter then goes through the PER process. A UV light source is then used to indicate the effectiveness of the cleaning process, as the UV light shows any remaining “Glo Germ.”
A sidebar to the “How Clean Is Clean” question is illustrated by the term “PER.” There is science-based reasoning not to use the term “decontaminate” in place of “preliminary exposure reduction.” The word “decontaminate” implies there is no more contamination. However, there are varying degrees of contamination remaining after “preliminary exposure reduction.”
So, what is a clean SCBA? From the purest point of view, it is only clean when it comes out of the box as a new unit. The SCBA is not totally clean simply based on the PER process. When is it clean enough to safely be placed back in the cab?
What are the risks of having SCBA in the cab? First, it is cross-contamination. Imagine the likely scenario when a firefighter is riding in an SCBA-contained seat but there is no need to wear any structural firefighting PPE. The contaminated SCBA then contaminates the clothing being worn by the firefighter. The firefighter returns to the station and sits in a recliner or a kitchen chair or perhaps lies down on the bed or on the bench press; or the shift has just ended, and the firefighter sits down in a personal vehicle. You get the contamination spread picture.
Another risk is the temptation to don the SCBA while en route to a call at the expense of not buckling the seat/shoulder strap.
Another perceived risk is the delay in effecting a rescue if the SCBA must be donned after arrival on the scene. I was vaccinated years ago on the thought that you should never have to do something on the scene that you could have done before arrival.
This was a line that was used a l-o-n-g time ago when preconnect hoselines were emerging as common practice. However, history has shown that this is really not an issue.
Fire departments that have removed the SCBA from the cab have not reported a decline in customer service delivery as a result. For example, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, a pioneer in customer service, took its SCBA out of the cab about 25 years ago.
In considering donning the SCBA after arrival on the scene, I think it is important that firefighters practice the process repetitively. I recall attending a firefighter’s muster about 30 years ago. One of the muster activities was a contest to see how quickly firefighters could don their complete PPE ensemble, including SCBA.
The scenario was that all the firefighters were at a starting line and had to don their PPE while walking 50 feet away and stepping up on the tailboard of an engine. The timer stopped when the firefighter got on the tailboard. The firefighter was not allowed to stand on the tailboard until all the PPE had been properly donned, including the SCBA, and “on air.”
The winning firefighter successfully won the contest by many seconds over the second fastest firefighter. It was like running a mile with the winner doing it in four minutes and all the others in at six-plus minutes. I inquired how this one firefighter was so much faster than the others, and the response was repetition, repetition, repetition. For the weeks leading up to the muster, the winning firefighter did the routine dozens of times every day.
The routine was broken down into segments, such as repeatedly stepping into the boots, repeatedly donning the face piece, or repeatedly zipping the coat. After dozens of reps, the firefighter was able to do it with his eyes closed.
A final thought: As we learn more and more about contamination and how to mitigate it, we need to keep an eye toward the future and think about disinfecting as well. Is there another COVID-19 like period ahead? In my mind, it seems to be the healthier choice to store the SCBA outside the cab.
There are hurdles to overcome when removing SCBA from the cab. First is where to store it outside the cab, as this requires a considerable amount of cubic feet of storage. One popular place is in the compartment above the rear wheel well.
Another good option is to have a vertically mounted slide-out board with the units mounted on both sides of the board. Remember, all the SCBA do not necessarily have to be stored together.
Be sure to attend FDIC and see all the innovations in clean cab design.
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 40-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.).