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Sun 14 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Deep breath

With the complex construction and oil and gas projects in the Middle East, there's never been greater potential for hazardous fires. The latest developments in breathing apparatus means that firefighters are better equipped than ever before to take on the challenges.

With the complex construction and oil and gas projects in the Middle East, there's never been greater potential for hazardous fires. The latest developments in breathing apparatus means that firefighters are better equipped than ever before to take on the challenges.

In the choking smoke of a fire, there's no time to lose. It takes bravery to march into the heart of a blaze and rescue human life or valuable equipment, and any firefighter who takes on the challenges needs to know they can trust the equipment they're dependent on to do their job.

Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is vital for fighting fires in situations where oxygen levels may be low, such as tunnel rescues, or incidents with high levels of smoke or toxic fumes, such as in oil refineries or chemical plants.

SCBA can also be used in industrial operations such as mining or petrochemicals. However, the priorities for an SCBA system used in firefighting mean that purchasers need place more emphasis on materials and weight more than cost. Typically, SCBA for firefighting cost more because of the need for them to utilise more exotic, flame-resistant materials.

Because of this, SCBA purchased for firefighting purposes should comply with either the European or American standards set out for SCBA. The NFPA Standard 1981 provides a baseline standard for SCBA to be used by US fire departments, while the equivalent European standard is European Standard EN 137:2006.

While most manufacturers of SCBA packs produce variants that comply with either the NFPA or EU standards, it is also worth looking at the extra features or components available. An airpack can cost up to US$3000, so making sure the investment contains everything required is essential.

Flexible firefighting

Putting out a blaze is a stressful task at the best of times, and stress can impair judgement. Therefore it's vital that an SCBA isn't another addition to the list of things a firefighter has to worry about. "Make sure the set itself is as light as possible," says Steve Burns, general manager of SCBA manufacturer Scott Health and Safety Europe. "Weight equals stress."

On average, an SCBA set can weigh around 10kg, which can be a considerable extra weight to carry around. "The operator usually has many things to wear.

He won't just be wearing an airpack; he'll have overalls, helmet, a motion device, gas detector, heavy boots," says Mohammed Gaith, business development manager at safety product manufacturer MSA. "They can't be inside all that gear and have heavy breathing apparatus."

While there is a limit to how much the weight of a pack can be reduced, there are opportunities to ensure that the pack's weight is distributed comfortably. Scott Health and Safety's Advanced Carrying System (ACS) was released in March.

"One of the key things we were developing [the ACS] was that it was as ergonomically sound as possible," says Burns. "It's modelled to the long muscles along the back, which makes it far more comfortable. You can wear these products for extended durations."

Given that firefighters come in all shapes and sizes, it can be beneficial to use SCBA that can be adjusted to the firefighter's body frame to fit the user's height or width. Flexibility is also an important concern.

"[The ACS] is adjustable around the hips so you can bend with it. It's also, the unit itself is flexible, so there's an amount of bending with the cylinder on the back," says Burns.

Maintenance matters

Maintenance is another key feature that needs to be considered. An SCBA set should be considered as a long-term investment, and experts say it's worth paying a slightly higher cost in order to reduce the overall lifetime costs.

"People are buying these for seven years, plus," says Burns. "For a professional purchaser, it's not just about the initial purchase. It's the cost of ownership." Some suppliers claim that the cost of maintaining a quality SCBA can be as low as $7 a year.

Reducing the maintenance costs can be done in two ways; improving the overall reliability of the pack, and by simplifying the actual maintenance procedure. MSA's PR-14 first stage regulator contains just 14 separate parts. "That's less than anyone else in the market. Some competitors have up to 86 parts and you need a whole toolbox to maintain it," says Gaith.

As well as the pneumatic elements, the actual frame of the SCBA should also be easy to maintain. "Say you go into a building and there's asbestos in a building, you need to make sure you can decontaminate the set from the asbestos fibres," says Burns. The ACS set can be washed at the same time as turnout gear in a washing machine.

Vendors of SCBA kits also sometimes have recommended maintenance interval periods, which should also be carefully considered when choosing a kit.

"Some manufacturers state no required maintenance for three years; others state maintenance every eight years," says Ernie Younkins, product manager for SCBA manufacturer Avon-ISI.

"Read the fine print. The three-year plan may require only cleaning and lubricating of o-rings and no parts replacement with a one-hour labour charge, while the eight-year plan requires all new o-rings and component changes that may cost over $400." Added extras

As well as looking at the basics, it is also worth seeing what additional features can be incorporated into SCBA kits. The MSA Quick-Fill system allows refilling of cylinders without the need for them to be unthreaded from the wearer's pack. This not only speeds up refilling time, but also means that the cylinder can be refilled during an operation without the firefighter needing to remove the pack.

Another concern that is perhaps more important to consider in the Middle East than in other parts of the world is the issue of ensuring a tight seal between the cylinder and the user's respiratory system. When buying a system, it's vital to consider an important cultural element, says Younkins.

Do any users have facial hair and would they have concerns about shaving?

Would the use of a positive pressure hood resolve this issue?" he asks. Firefighters with beards may find that a standard mask won't provide the necessary airtight seal to protect the user, in which case a positive pressure hood can be used to ensure their safety while using the equipment.

In a positive pressure system, the SCBA is configured maintain a small amount of pressure within the hood. Since the air in the hood will always remain at a slightly higher pressure than the potentially hazardous air outside, even if there is a slight leak in the hood, the clean air should prevent inward leakage. Usually there is no air capacity penalty in such a system, meaning that positive pressure hoods and masks are now the norm for fire-fighting operations.

If a mask is chosen to be fitted with the SCBA, there are other options to consider. Inhalation valves can help keep the entire kit sanitary, which according to experts is an important factor in the Middle East.

"The Middle East here is very multicultural, meaning viruses come in from all around the world," says Gaith. With an inhalation valve "if you are carrying a disease, you only infect your mask. You don't infect the rest of the breathing equipment," he says. Although common safety standards do not specifically call for such protection, the option is available.

With the continuing complexity and growth of projects in the Middle East, both in construction and the oil and gas markets, the need for firefighters to be able to breathe and move easily has never been greater. "The good thing about the Middle East is there is always an expansion project, a new oilfield discovered, a new petrochemical plant opening up.

There's always big business for everyone," says Gaith. With new technologies coming into the SCBA market, there are also always options to keep firefighters safe should any of these elements suffer from the unthinkable.

Standard kitThe US National Fire Protection Association's NFPA 1981 Standards provide minimum requirements for SCBA kits to be approved for use by fire departments within the United States.

The standards include evaluations for heat and flame resistance, air cylinder performance and faceplate lens abrasion resistance. The standards were last updated in 2007, with the following SCBA kits among those meeting the minimum standards.

MSA:FireHawk M7 Airmask

FireHawk M7 Responder Airmask

Interspiro:Spiromatic S6

Scott Health And Safety:

AirPak

Model NxG7

Draeger:

AirBossTM Evolution SCBA

PSS 7000

International Safety Instruments:Viking Z Seven series

Sperian Fire:Warrior

Source:National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

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