A Preview of the New Edition of NFPA 1981 SCBA Standard

In January, the 2013 edition of NFPA 1981: Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services will be released. This is no mere cosmetic update; the standard contains some significant changes that will have an immediate impact on firefighting tactics.

To get the critical information about the new standard and what changes you can expect in your SCBA, FireRescue spoke with Dan Rossos, chair of the NFPA’s technical committee on respiratory protective equipment, who’s been with Portland (Ore.) Fire and Rescue for more than 30 years. Rossos is involved in numerous SCBA-related task forces and committees. In short, there’s no better source for helping us understand the changes imminent in SCBA technology.

The main proposed changes to the standard involve the following areas:

  • End-of-service time indicator (EOSTI)
  • Facepiece lens thermal degradation
  • Voice intelligibility requirements
  • Emergency breathing safety systems (“buddy breathers”)

We asked Rossos to provide some more information on each of these areas.

FireRescue magazine (FRM): Briefly describe the process for instituting these changes, and where the 2013 edition of the standard is in the approval process.

Dan Rossos (DR): The changes resulted from both public and committee proposals. The ones that occupy the majority of the last five and six years–certainly the ones that were the most agonizing to see through the process–were the EOSTI, lens thermal degradation and the buddy breather. That’s largely because they had emotional issues tied to them; firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) may have been involved. The one that had the least emotional aspect but required a tremendous amount of time and work was the new communication standard.

Typically our standard is a five-year standard. It came out in 2007, so it should have been updated in 2012. We had so many issues that required verification and validation of test methods that we asked the NFPA Standards Council to permit the document to “slip cycle.”
That’s what’s making this a 2013 standard instead of 2012.

FRM: Is it common to delay a standard?

DR: It’s not unusual in the NFPA process. We typically try to stay right on schedule. But it can be used to allow a technical committee to gather more information.

On many aspects of these changes, we were working closely with the NFPA Research Foundation, NIOSH and NIST, and we needed to be sure that we had validated and verified these tests before they became part of the standard. This was an effort that took tremendous coordination, time, resources and energy among these agencies; the collaboration was excellent.

We believed it would be irresponsible to put the information in a standard and require tests that we weren’t yet confident in. We didn’t want firefighters to buy a product and two years later find out that it wasn’t designed to do what we thought it would do.

FRM: One major change to 1981 affects the EOSTI. The alarm will sound when there’s 33% of the air left, rather than the current 25%. Explain that change.

DR: In the past, EOSTI was not a requirement by NFPA; it is a NIOSH standard. That NIOSH standard required activation between 20—25%; rather than a specific amount, it specified a window. NFPA 1981 didn’t specify EOSTI; it defaulted to the NIOSH standard.

When the 1981 committee wanted to set EOSTI at 33%, we were outside that NIOSH window. NIOSH agreed that it was a valid request. Instead of NIOSH changing the window or just simply adopting the NFPA request, they determined that EOSTI certified by NIOSH must now activate above 25%. So a manufacturer can make an SCBA with an EOSTI at 26%, but if it needs to be NFPA 1981-certified, it has to be at 33%.

It would cause tremendous confusion in the fire service if we all had different EOSTI settings. That’s why 1981 is set at one setting–every municipality around the country will have the same EOSTI.

FRM: What led the committee to make this recommendation?

DR: Around 2000, on the NFPA 1404 committee, we started looking at some of the close call history and LODD investigations. As firefighters, we have this picture that we’re going to give our life running out of a burning building with two babies in our arms, and the tragedy was that we had firefighters who died or almost died 10 feet from the door, or in a closet, simply because they ran out of air. There was no big, dramatic movie screen narrative, they just simply suffered this horrible fate of running out of air.

A SCUBA diver has emergency air that they don’t use for anything–it’s only used for a real emergency. In the fire service, we used to use our last bit of air as our “get-out” air–not for an emergency. The EOSTI was our indication that we needed to start exiting, and in reality, most of us didn’t even do it then. So on the 1404 committee, we wrote a proposal about individual air management, indicating that firefighters should leave the IDLH before the EOSTI goes off. The most recent edition of 1404 moves this language from “should” language to “shall” language.

When people saw where that was going, they started doing more training, and they realized that reserving 25% of your cylinder for an emergency is perhaps not enough. The recommendation to our committee was that this chunk of air that we’re going to set aside really should be larger.

FRM: Will this mean that firefighters will have less time for firefighting inside a structure?

DR: Mathematically, you’re absolutely right: If you obey the standard and exit the IDLH before your EOSTI goes off, that means less time inside. When you’re using a 30-minute cylinder, this makes a tremendous impact. When you’re using the 45-minute cylinder, it makes a relatively minor impact.

We’ve been grappling for years with cylinder size. I’m not promoting one cylinder size or the other. Obviously, we have to manage our air and we have to do our job; however, we need to do it in light of the new standard. We [the committee] believe it’s very do-able, and some departments are already training to that level.

FRM: Are we trying to solve a behavioral problem using technology?

DR: That’s definitely a fair point, but this change came independent of a discussion on behavioral issues. We broke it down scientifically, and looked at the liters of air we breathe, and we really thought that 25% reserve air just isn’t enough.

FRM: Is this change final?

DR: The public comment period for the NIOSH rulemaking is done. NIOSH received very few negative comments; almost everything was positive. Before the end of the calendar year, a final ruling will be made, and they’ve indicated to us that they expect that the language that we presently have will stand.

FRM: Another major change involves facepiece lens integrity. What incidents contributed to this recommendation?

DR: We have a member of NIOSH’s firefighter fatality investigation team on our committee. In 2008, I got a phone call from the investigator who indicated there had been a firefighter fatality in which the lens had melted out of the firefighter’s facepiece. That sent chills through my spine. I’d been in the fire service for quite a few years, never had one melt. Helmets bubble, visors melt, but never a lens.

My first thought was that it was going to be some anomaly. But within about six months, we had two more fatalities involving significant thermal degradation of lenses–and they were different manufacturers.

The first question I had to make sure we asked was, what have we done on the committee regarding lenses that could have created this problem? Did we change tinting, etc., that could have created an unforeseen problem? The answer was that we hadn’t done anything to lenses in 15 to 20 years.

So the next question was, what has changed in the fire world? UL had just released its test showing fires in legacy vs. modern homes. These tests clearly showed that firefighters today are dealing with fuels, heat, flashover and chemicals that we’d never experienced before. We didn’t have a lens problem, we had a fire world that had changed without us keeping on top of it–this is my opinion. Eventually, that was going to start showing up as an equipment failure. Unfortunately, the piece of equipment it showed up in had the potential to be deadly, because when you have a breakdown in respiratory protection, there’s no forgiveness.

FRM: How will integrity of the facepiece change with the new standard?

DR: Initially, what we tried to do with NIST is replicate what we had in terms of damage with the lens. They set up lab tests using the radiated heat panel, exposed the lens to varying degrees to try to damage it to what we had seen in real-life situations.

During their tests, we saw the lens go into a semi-soft state, where it was actually moving in on inhalation and out on exhalation. Simultaneously, we saw a discolorization of the lens occur. That’s when our hearts sank. Because on the fireground, when our lenses become discolored, our first instinct is to wipe them with our gloved hand. But when we’re doing that, it’s possible that the lens is soft enough that you could stick your thumb right through it. Of course, as soon as you walk out and it’s cool again, the lens stiffens up, so you may never know that you were that close to putting your hand through your lens.

Then we tried to duplicate the results at another lab. The lenses performed much better. So we dug deeper and found that the NIST test was done with radiant heat; the other lab used convected heat. The difference in the physical make-up of those waves had an incredible difference on how much it degraded the SCBA.

Almost everything we dealt with on the fireground in the past was convected heat. But now, the fuels that we are dealing with are producing a level of radiant exposure that we’ve never experienced before, coupled with the fact that we’re not as able to detect it due to enhanced PPE. We’re going in standing up because we don’t need to be down low. When your PPE allows you to do that, you get exposed to more radiant heat.

FRM: What tests will be used to ensure that lenses don’t fail in this new fire environment?

DR: The lens facepiece is now subjected to a test of radiant heat at 15 kW/m2. It focuses the heat on the lens itself and it’s conducted with a radiant heat panel.

In addition, the whole SCBA will be subject to the 500 degrees F test. The SCBA on a manikin, breathing air, goes into the oven for 5 minutes. As it comes out, it’s completely engulfed in flame for 10 seconds, still breathing air; after 10 seconds it’s dropped vertically 6 inches. And it must continue to maintain positive pressure in the SCBA. This is a test to determine whether the SCBA can survive a destructive, catastrophic event and get you out of the building–it’s not intended to be used again after experiencing such conditions.  

FRM: In your opinion, will enhancing facepiece lens integrity make firefighters safer?

DR: Within the scope of 1981, all we could do was address this issue through the equipment. We can make the lens better, but in my heart I don’t believe that’s going to solve the problem. My opinion is that we started paying a price for the better PPE. Unless we go back and change our behavior, something else will fail. This is not the same world that we used to fight fires in.

But we couldn’t be satisfied operating just within the scope of 1981. To get the message out, we coordinated with NFPA so that this information can be provided to the applicable committees to address the behavior that needs to change. The NFPA also issued a Safety Alert about lens thermal degradation.

We’ve also started a task group to look at PPE as an ensemble certification. My argument is that you have a certification for helmets, gloves, turnouts, SCBA, but we wear them all together–we need to certify them with our eyes open as to their application.

FRM: What is the status of the lens changes recommendation?

DR: The verification and validation of the tests is done, all the third-party testing labs are ready and the apparatus is in place to do the testing. Once the standard is issued, manufacturers will have approximately 7 months to take orders [after the effective date of the standard] to sell existing 2007-edition SCBA.

FRM: Another change affects voice legibility. Will this difference be noticeable to firefighters?

DR: So much of the past testing that’s been done regarding speaking with SCBA was so subjective; it was usually done with actual people. So we came up with a new test, a speech transmission index. It gives numerical values to sound and measures how a machine picks it up and receives it, so you can create a baseline that the SCBA must meet.

In addition, we made a hard and fast decision that every SCBA must have a mechanical speaking system that is independent from any electrical- or battery-powered source. You can have an electronically enhanced communication system as an accessory, but you have to have a mechanical one that works independent of any power source.

There will absolutely be a difference in the firefighter’s ability to communicate on their end. But part of what we’re finding is the bill on your helmet, the thickness of your hood, etc., can change the ability you have to receive the message. So, the standard will make improvements in how the sound is sent out–but we can’t control how they will hear it.

FRM: NIOSH/NFPA has been evaluating emergency breathing safety systems (EBSS, aka “buddy breathers”) for some time. What led to the decision to allow them?

DR: In 1984, NIOSH prohibited the use of buddy breathers. So, EBSS technically didn’t exist, but in reality, manufacturers were designing accessories that were ultimately used as buddy breathers. It gnawed at me–if everyone knows this is going on, if we have this equipment that we’re calling one thing and using for another thing, we need to face it head on.
As I saw it, if we concluded that a buddy breather was inherently bad, we could “design it out”–we could write into the standard that no air can exit the SCBA except at the point of the facepiece. Or, if it’s not really such a bad thing, we can standardize how it functions, do it above board, develop training for it.

The first question we had to ask: Was the original prohibition behavioral or technical? Because if it was behavioral, then it doesn’t matter what the technology is or could be. The response was that it was technical, not behavioral.

With that in mind, we asked, what were the technical issues and are we in a position to overcome them? And one of the technical challenges was the ability to have twice the volume of airflow. Once that was do-able, it opened the door to us.

So NIOSH chose to lift the prohibition on buddy breathers for structural firefighting only. Buddy breathers will be considered an accessory; they’re not required. But if you choose to have one, they have to perform to the new standard.

FRM: How are intrinsic safety standards for SCBA changing and what does this mean for the average firefighter?

DR: We have chosen to embrace the highest level of intrinsic safety when it comes to SCBA. Some people argue that it’s beyond what we need. Ultimately, everything else we have, with the exception of the SCBA, we have a choice to bring it in or not. We have to go in with the SCBA. You can choose to take a flashlight, a radio, a TIC, but you can’t go in without your SCBA. If by reducing the intrinsic safety we could [realize technological improvements such as] an SCBA that’s half the weight, or get a locator system, maybe that would be worth it. But so far no one’s demonstrated that. If we don’t have anything we can trade it for, it’s not worth it to compromise on the safety.  

FRM: For departments not planning to replace SCBA, are there steps they can take to at least get closer to meeting the new standard?

DR: I would suspect most manufacturers will engineer upgrades to existing SCBA. I would certainly recommend that if you can’t purchase new SCBA, you look at what you can upgrade. You don’t necessarily have to buy completely new.

FRM: Do you think the proposed changes to 1981 will make firefighters safer?

DR: What we’re trying to tell people–this stuff about the fuels, the heat, the timeframes that are being reduced–is that this is real, serious stuff, and it has a tremendous impact on PPE, and on SCBA. And if we fix one component of the SCBA, it’s simply going to manifest itself somewhere else.

In addition to making our equipment better, we need to re-evaluate our SOPs and ask, does the way we do this now still work with the environment we’re in today? We can’t be locked into doing things the way we did them 30, 40, even 25 years ago. We’ve lost the sensory ability to determine the environment we’re in. And if you can’t feel it, taste it or smell it, you need to have new ways to determine when you’re in a bad situation. Within the scope of the 1981 standard, we don’t tell firefighters how to do it, but we do underscore that your burning ears aren’t your indicator anymore.

Any opinion expressed in this article is the personal opinion of the interviewee and does not necessarily represent the official position of the NFPA or its technical committees.

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