Next-Gen SCBA

You’re a member of a truck company performing a primary search of a single-family dwelling that was 25 percent involved upon arrival. Crawling on your hands and knees in the heat, smoke and darkness amid debris, your SCBA harness gets “hung up.” You’re forced to remove your SCBA to free yourself. Now you realize that you’ve become separated from the rest of your crew. As conditions deteriorate, you decide to make an exit …

This scenario is too common in the modern fire service. Bulky, heavy and rigid SCBA can cause fatigue, restrict mobility and limit accessibility to confined spaces–and they’re believed to be a factor in some firefighter injuries and fatalities. As a result, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate to introduce a new pressure-vessel technology that will become part of a next-generation breathing apparatus.

Flat & Light
The weight and size of current SCBA are largely due to the hard metal-based cylinders. The IAFF Project Team, including subcontractors Vulcore Industrial (which developed the technology) and International Personnel Protection, is creating a replacement for the conventional, cumbersome cylinder. The  new SCBA will use thinner pressure vessels that are combined with a manifold and valve and protected by a soft, but durable, fire-resistant cover.

The new “array” has multiple smaller vessels of compressed air that are interconnected to provide 45 minutes of breathing air in a much flatter profile–about 2.4 inches deep. Presently, the SCBA constitutes a significant portion of the weight of a firefighter’s protective ensemble. The new pressure-vessel technology is expected to provide a significant reduction in weight, which will lessen stress effects and fatigue. This pressure-vessel array is compatible with and can be refilled using existing filling station technology.
    
Getting Technical
The compact design of the new SCBA conforms to the user’s back by using flexible joints in the pressure vessels and manifold, enabling easier movement in confined spaces. The pressure-vessel technology is based on a high-temperature polymer wrapped with para-aramid fiber, and then wound with pre-impregnated carbon filament to provide operating pressures up to approximately 5,000 psi, thus affording firefighters a low-profile SCBA that’s lighter than conventional SCBA.

The pressure-vessel technology also reduces the threat of catastrophic failure because the contained air will vent into the atmosphere if penetrated, as opposed to existing SCBA cylinders, which can explode if a tank ruptures.

In preliminary demonstrations, SCBA based on the new technology are outperforming current SCBA. These evaluations entailed SCBA confidence courses that assess firefighter agility in navigating obstacles during simulated fireground operations.

The pressure vessels have also been tested for air permeation and were found to have no air or pressure loss after 2 years. Additionally, prototype vessels are meeting burst standards in pressure and cycle testing, which are important to demonstrate how they retain their integrity.

To Market
The First Responder Technologies (R-Tech) TechSolutions program of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate has been awarded a contract with the IAFF to accelerate the introduction of the pressure-vessel technology.

“With the support of the Department of Homeland Security and TechSolutions, the IAFF is confident that a new generation of lighter, low-profile SCBA will soon be available to the emergency response community, and first responders throughout the world will be safer for it,” says IAFF General President Harold A. Schaitberger.

Steps in the contract include:
– Optimizing and qualifying the pressure vessels to meet government requirements;
– Working with the SCBA industry to integrate the new pressure-vessel technology; and
– Undertaking laboratory and field testing to demonstrate the compliance and acceptability of the SCBA that incorporate the pressure vessel array.

A Technical Advisory Committee of firefighters and law-enforcement officers is providing input for the integration, testing and introduction of the new pressure-vessel technology. The contract sets the stage for industry commercialization of this technology.

“DHS is pleased to be partnering with the IAFF Project Team to develop this industry-changing technology,” says Gregory Price, director of TechSolutions. “This is the most significant change in more than 25 years to the SCBA’s air cylinder and harness system. The flexibility, weight reduction and substantial decrease in profile this technology offers will make emergency responders more agile and less fatigued, and allow them to perform their jobs more efficiently and effectively.”

The new SCBA could be commercially available as early as spring 2011 and is expected to be priced comparably to SCBA currently on the market. In the meantime, we’ll continue to monitor the development of this new technology and the benefits it promises to afford. For more information about the R-Tech program, visit www.FirstResponder.gov.

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