Post Webcast Q&A - Preventing and Responding to SCBA Emergencies

Webcast Q&A

On Tuesday, April 14, FireRescue magazine and held a Webcast, “Preventing and Responding to SCBA Emergencies,” presented by Battalion Chief Matt Tobia of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department and sponsored by Dräger.

The presentation generated a lively discussion, and we were unable to answer all of the questions that came in during the Webcast. Chief Tobia generously offered to address the questions after the presentation.

Following are those questions and Chief Tobia’s answers.

Q: A poll question asked about whether we were monitoring the environment before removing SCBA. Maybe we shouldn't monitor the atmosphere since we can't monitor for all hazards. Just leave the SCBA on?

A: You make an excellent point. The safest thing to do is simply wear the SCBA with breathing air for the entire time. There is a point at which the environment might be safe to operate in without SCBA for individuals such as fire investigators, etc., for whom SCBA might pose a challenge to completing their tasks. The overarching concern should always be for the safety of operating personnel.

Q: Just as a follow-up, we require SCBA use through the overhaul process due to the toxic effects of the environment.

A: That is always an outstanding option. We also require that, as do many departments – even after overhaul, however, the environment should still be evaluated and it also helps to provide a continuous supply of fresh air from electric PPVs or other ventilation type.

Q: Can the air monitoring be done by your accountability officer?

A: You should select the person who is best suited for your department. I would say that could certainly do that efficiently by requiring the accountability officer to communicate with interior crews in reporting their air levels within their SCBA. This requires that the accountability function be staffed by a person and not allowed to operate in an “auto-pilot” mode.

Q: Are you seeing problems with old PASS devices always going off?

A: One of the challenges with older model PASS alarms is that the technology becomes affected by the routine and repetitive motion issues associated with riding in the apparatus. Some models have had issues whereby the motion sensor becomes defective over time and transmits a false positive even when the device is in motion. Have the PASS alarms serviced by a manufacturer’s representative or consider replacing them if they are very old (greater than 10 years).

Q: Will the new systems hold more air?

A: That is a great question and I do not know the answer. My guess would be “no” only because there is a fatigue factor associated with working in an IDLH environment that could cause a firefighter to become complacent or lose sight of their situational awareness. Even special circumstances uses (HazMat) limit their air to 80 cubic feet in a cylinder.

Q: How are we going to change bottles on the new air pack design?

A: That is an excellent question that I do not know the answer to – I am not sure if the new design is going to be refilled while still on your back or if there is a cell that will be available to replace. I suppose we will find out together!

Q: What do you think about the new smoke escape filters that are out on the market now?

A: To be honest, in their current configuration, I am adamantly opposed to them for a couple of reasons. Although they provide another tool in the toolbox for survival, I am convinced that firefighters will use them as “cheaters” to stay longer or avoid going on air for an extended period of time. I would support their implementation if activating one resulted in an audible signal to others that it was in use, alerting ICs to the need for a RIT deployment.

Q: Can there be a label be put on the air pack to tell us if this unit has been in heat too long, just like in ladders?

A: That is a great question. I am not aware of whether this issue has been addressed at the NFPA level, but I think it warrants asking them. I would recommend that you send an email to Curt Varone at the NFPA who is an ardent supporter of firefighter safety so he can get your question to the best person. You can email Chief Varone at

Q: What should a facepiece check include?

A: A facepiece check should include checking the lens for cracks, scratches, signs of warping, etc. The exhalation valve and inhalation valve should be in proper working order and unobstructed. The entire mask should be clean and free of dirt or products of combustion. The head harness should be inspected for tears, etc and ensured as being operational. For more information concerning this, go to the IFSTA series on SCBA or in the Essentials of Firefighting textbook.

Q: Are there any grants or federal programs to update SCBAs? We are in a very rural county and money is very tight. We are only one step away from the old elephant trunk system.

A: The AFG grant program is designed specifically for your department! The grant application period is open right now and you can replace all of your SCBA with new units meeting the latest standard! Good Luck! Those federal dollars are there for you to use.

Q: Our explorer post needs some new training for SCBAs, some of our new guys don’t even really know what it is. What are some ways for us to get acquainted with them?

A: I would contact your state training agency and ask them how to proceed with, at least, awareness level training. That will get you started in the right direction.

Q: What type of funding is there for smaller depts?

A: There are two excellent programs available to departments:

The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG) – a federal level program managed through FEMA and the DHS.

The Fireman’s Fund Heritage Foundation.

Both are excellent sources of funding and can be found on the Internet.

Q: The NFPA 1407 standard has been submitted for approval to the NFPA. This standard does not set a national standard on mayday training, only that mayday training should be conducted. How can one validate their mayday/RIT training program including SCBA

A: I would strongly encourage you to follow a formal curriculum from a recognized training center including MFRI, the PA Fire Academy, or the Illinois Fire Services Institute. You might also consider writing your own curriculum but keep in mind that it should be based on actual firefighter fatality or near-miss incidents to provide validation of the need for a particular type of training scenario.

Q: If the SCBA works fine out of an IDLH environment, how can we test it to be sure it will work properly in an IDLH environment?

A: There is no perfect SCBA. Recent changes in the NFPA standard have dramatically tightened the performance requirements of SCBA. Stricter demands for performance under high heat conditions will more closely approximate “real world” conditions than in the past. Having said that, I think it is incumbent upon firefighters to maintain a situational awareness of their surroundings to maximize the chance of survival.

Q: What should we do with SCBA sold prior 2007 NFPA Edition?

A: Your SCBA is still NFPA compliant and should continue to be used as long as it conforms to the maintenance requirements set forth by the manufacturer. You do not need to alter your SCBA – simply be aware of the changes in a newer version of the document and take steps to minimize the risks associated with an older, but still safe, version.

Q: Some civilian departments I have worked with assign personal regulators to their firefighters and some don't. As long as they are getting inspected and maintained properly, do you have a preference for either practice?

A: The issue I have is cross-contamination of exhaled air being allowed to contact the regulator. As long as exhaled air cannot communicate with the stage II regulator, I have no problem with a common regulator for more than one responder. I am aware of the situation you describe and my concern is always for the safety of personnel.

Q: Does anyone have SOP/SOG regarding respirator fit testing and/or SCBA maintenance protocols they are willing to share? Kevin Barlow Jr Colorado City Fire Dept Colorado City, AZ

A: Go to the Internet and type in TRADENET – it is a free information sharing system set up by the USFA at the NFA – once your question is posted you will receive a dozen or more responses – good luck and please contact me again if you need more information.

Q: Are there any specific recommendations for formal training of field level personnel in SCBA maintenance procedures/troubleshooting and/or repair in the firehouse?

A: The repair and maintenance of SCBA is an extremely risky proposition. As such, there are stringent training requirements associated with the maintenance and repair of SCBA. We have a designated person in the department specifically trained in this area and certified by the manufacturer to perform certain functions. Ultimately, you can either elect to train one of your own members or contract the service out to an independent agency but you should never permit the “routine” maintenance of SCBA by un-certified personnel.

Q: Where may I get more mayday training information?

A: There are myriad excellent training sites online as well as training agencies that deliver training programs. Start with the Internet and then follow up with your state training agency. Our department has participated in an excellent program through MFRI and there are other agencies including the PA Fire Academy and Illinois Fire Services Institute that are really developing and delivering great stuff. Several recent articles in FireRescue magazine have also highlighted training opportunities.

Q: Who would you contact to report no preventive maintenance on SCBAs in upstate NY?

A: You ask a difficult question because I am not familiar with the relationship between NY fire departments and the State OSHA office. My first inclination would be to work inside the system and try to make changes from within by making the decision-makers aware of the liability posed by not participating in a preventive maintenance program. Good luck and keep working for safety.

Q: From an Emergency Medical Service stand point, is there anything in particular we can do to assist and or help prevent SCBA emergencies at a fire scene?

A: EMS plays a critical role in the safety and survival of operating crews. If you are able to, I would approach your local fire company about taking over the accountability and air management program on the incident scene which would free their folks up to fight fire, etc. You must always remain in a position to provide care so if you take on the accountability function, you will need to bolster your response to ensure that there is always a unit available for transport. In the alternative, you could simply know that an injured firefighter would require you to call for an additional unit for transport.

Q: What is the most common reason for SCBA malfunctions?

A: The most common causes of SCBA malfunctions are failure of the user to conduct a pre-use inspection and test; and failure of the department to maintain an aggressive preventive maintenance program. Both have the potential to cause a catastrophic failure of the SCBA.

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