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FEMA Wants All SCBA Replaced
FEMA Wants All SCBA Replaced
by C. Peter Jørgensen
“We’re from the government and we’re going to make all your SCBA obsolete and non-NFPA compliant.”
“Don’t worry; we know what’s best for you. Just because you are located in Frackville, Pa., or Blackfoot, Idaho, don’t think you won’t be the next target for a terrorist attack.”
Nope. A proposal by the InterAgency Board (IAB) for Equipment Standardization and InterOperability, which several people thought had died long ago, is about to be forced down the throat of NFPA in October. Under the plan, all Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) will have to use the same universal air bottle.
Baby blue bottles for everybody; whether you want or need them or not.
Although the “public comment” period won’t open until December to run through March 2006, the IAB is confident its planned change to NFPA 1981 will be adopted and is on schedule for “Mandatory Compliance” in August 2007.
Although nobody will use the term on the record, the NFPA Technical Committee on Open Circuit Breathing Apparatus is being bulldozed into coming up with a proposal to satisfy the IAB and Homeland Security.
Committee Chairman Ray Reed, battalion chief at Dallas (Texas) Fire-Rescue, says the Report on Proposal for NFPA 1981 changes will soon be available on the NFPA web site and additional efforts will be made to publicize it to fire departments across the country.
Earlier this summer a federal government push to have this “interoperability standard” adopted as a Temporary Interim Amendment was rejected by the committee. Such an amendment would have put the proposed rules into effect immediately without waiting for “public” input and the scheduled August 2007 update to the NFPA Standard.
Even if you just purchased all new SCBA with a FIRE Act grant in the last few years, your masks, regulators and especially all your bottles will be non-compliant.
The supposed “benefit” to your department is that eventually you will be able to exchange air bottles with mutual aid departments responding to a terrorist attack, or at a fire scene even if you don’t have SCBA made by the same manufacturer.
Little does it matter to the IAB that a 30-minute air bottle provides air for about 18 minutes and then has to be refilled. Or that all air bottles have a standardized refill valve assembly making the quest for “compatibility” just a new answer to a problem solved long ago by the fire service itself.
Bottles are now refilled from on-scene air supply trucks that carry high-volume air cylinders arranged in a cascade system to ensure full and uniform pressure. Each bottle is refilled in less than five minutes—a lot quicker than it takes a firefighter to use up the air inside the bottle presently on his back.
Any large fire scene involving mutual aid departments has one or more refill stations set up where bottles are charged and sorted by color. Since all departments now must carry a spare cylinder for each SCBA unit in service, running out of full bottles is rarely a problem.
In 2007, manufacturers will begin selling only baby blue SCBA bottles, regardless of the color you have now. And it won’t make any difference whether you now have two or 200 or 2,000 air packs — or many thousands like New York City — the new baby blue bottles won’t fit your present air packs. And FDNY, for example, won’t be able to buy any more yellow bottles. It will be forced to switch colors — and type.
FDNY doesn’t like the idea. Their representative on the NFPA Technical Committee, Richard S. Tobin, said in a letter to the committee chairman this year, “Interoperability was never an issue for the FDNY at the World Trade Center on 9/11/01.”
No matter. White, green, gray, black or whatever color bottle you now have will be incompatible with SCBA sold after August 2007 under the IAB-FEMA sponsored “interchangeability” program.
It may take the life cycle of a new carbon fiber cylinder to replace all your present SCBA with a “universal” model. In the meantime you’ll just have to play “mix and match” on the fireground for the next 15 years.
Instead of enhancing interoperability, a dictated change will ensure that SCBA bottles in the same department won’t be compatible with each other. Pre-2007 air packs will take one type bottle and post 2007 packs will use the baby blue bottles. This will guarantee confusion during routine operations and even during training within a single fire department.
Underwrite The Cost
Tobin adds that the FDNY feels “if the InterAgency Board, an element of the Department of Homeland Security, sincerely believes SCBA bottle interoperability is vital to our national security, then that Department should present a plan for the federal government to underwrite the costs associated with this undertaking.” His opinion is backed up by FDNY Chief of Operations Sal Cassano.
But there’s not much chance of that. There’s an estimated 1.2-million air bottles now in service. At $700 apiece for a carbon fiber lightweight 2216 psi cylinder, that’s $840 million, or more than the entire FIRE Act grants for one year. With masks and regulators coming under new standards as well, the figure could rise to $2.6 billion.
Fairfax County Fire-Rescue, Fairfax, Va., doesn’t like the idea either. Lt. Paul Bull, committee representative, wrote of the IAB and FEMA demand to NFPA that, “Never asked or answered was ... what area of the fire service community brought this item forward as a concern that needs to be immediately addressed?”
Fairfax County Fire-Rescue was the Incident Commander for the Pentagon air crash and fire on September 11, 2001.
Another problem identified by the Technical Committee members was that this type of change will violate the federal NIOSH standards under which entire SCBA models are certified to comply with OSHA standards. At present, using one company’s air bottle on a different manufacturer’s SCBA violates the NIOSH and OSHA standards even if the bottles will interchange.
Bottles Look The Same
While outwardly air bottles in the 30, 45- and 60-minute sizes all look the same, internal liners from various manufacturers have differences. There are three approved bottle pressures, 2,216 psi, 3,000 psi and 4,500 psi. But some really ancient steel bottles with round bottoms in 1,800 psi and 2,015 psi capacities are still found in some small rural fire houses today.
Lt. Bull of Fairfax County has further objected to the “11th hour push ... by the NFPA Technical Committee “under threat that IAB and/or FEMA will do something if we do not.” And he’s concerned about the enormous cost to fire departments and little or no benefit.
Part of the proposal also requires that all SCBA be Chemical-Biological-Radioactive and Nuclear certified (CRBN) — even in Frackville and Blackfoot.
None of the SCBA manufacturers has issued a statement in favor of the proposed changes to NFPA 1981, even though they would benefit from huge sales of new cylinders.
A spokesman for Scott pointed out that government standardized cylinders would stop research and development in its tracks. Scott recently introduced the patented Snap-Change® cylinder attachment that doesn’t require a screw-type connector hose and allows bottle changes in under five seconds. The Snap-Change has both audible and LED indicators to show cylinder status during a change and it meets all current NFPA requirements and has an integral PASS device.
All SCBAs manufactured since the last NFPA update in 2002 have provisions for sharing air with a downed firefighter, but competition between manufacturers keeps up development of new technology. The IAB proposal would outlaw the Scott Snap-Change, replacing it with an inferior system. In effect, all SCBA development would be frozen at 2005 Standards as it is unlikely the government itself would undertake research and development.
The InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization and InterOperability (IAB) was founded by the Department of Defense’s Consequence Management Program Integration Office and the Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Investigation Weapons of Mass Destruction Countermeasures. It is also charged with working on communications interoperability and, not having any success there, is apparently looking for an easy “win” on the SCBA bottle standard.
It matters little that the fire service has had no opportunity for input and that internal documents and notes between committee members suggest that the so-called public comment period from December though March will just be a pro-forma exercise.
While most fire departments have adopted the mobile cascade system to refill cylinders on the fire scene, FDNY operates differently. It has trucks spotted around the city filled with spare cylinders. Its cylinder inventory is in the thousands and replacement would have a significant financial impact. Any gradual changeover would create an interchangeability problem for years to come, canceling out the benefit available to them on September 11 with a single system of similar air bottles throughout the city.
Note: This is Part I of a two-part story on proposed changes to NFPA 1981. Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Magazine will publish comments from readers and fire chiefs received before our next issue. Thus far there has been no “user input” on the proposed changes. E-mail may be addressed to email@example.com. All letters will be verified and must contain names, affiliation and contact telephone numbers for checking purposes.
I always thought the NFPA specs were designed for safety, not for some panacea of "interoperability".
Can you imagine the CF of adapters that are going to be used to connect a brand "A" facepice to a brand "B" regulator? Can you imagine the CF of lawsuits and counterclaims if someone is killed while wearing a collection of various manufacturers pieces?
Can you department afford to replace all of your SCBAs and tanks?
Does this mean everybody will be required to upgrade to 4500psi systems? What about those departments that do not have a compressor/cascade that is capable of high pressure?
Will everyone have to replace their fill station whips to attach to the "new" connector?
IMHO this program is a ton of prevention for an ounce of cure. In all reality, how many incidents have had an interoperability problem with SCBA? Are you going to do interior work wearing an SCBA from an unknown department who's maintenance records are also unknown?
"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." - Unknown
"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force" - George Washington
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