Breathing apparatus (BA) has come a long way over the years. Some things however never change. Without breathable air, the danger to life is extreme and immediate. The use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is therefore absolutely essential when it comes to keeping firefighters safe.
Before it, early firefighters – often referred to as ‘smoke eaters’ – had to face the deadly effects of inhaling smoke and carbon monoxide with little or no protection, risking their lives every single day.
Safety specialist, Dräger, has been at the forefront of breathing apparatus innovations for the past 125 years and continues to pioneer advances in technology designed to protect firefighters around the world.
This article looks at some of the key moments in the development of SCBA through the ages and considers the future of this vital piece of safety equipment.
An essential piece of kit
Without a doubt, SCBA is one of the most important pieces of personal protective equipment a firefighter on the front line wears. The equipment has the ability to protect against serious injury across the variety of different hazardous scenarios a firefighter faces on a daily basis.
Its overall purpose is to protect the wearer and ensure they breathe safely in an otherwise irrespirable environment – and it is one of the main risk control measures employed by brigades around the world.
As a result, through time, there has been a need to constantly innovate and develop in line with shifting Health and Safety regulations and increasing user expectations.
When it comes to breathing apparatus and the systems behind them, innovation never stops. New developments continue to be made as the fire industry moves forward; incidents require new tactics and firefighting procedures change.
Innovations through the ages – putting the user first
Breathing apparatus has a history of innovation which takes into account the many considerations around firefighter safety. As a safety manufacturer which upholds ‘Technology for Life’ as its guiding philosophy, Dräger has been at the forefront of many of these changes.
Fire service folklore recalls the days of firefighters growing long beards to help them breathe in smoke and thankfully, BA innovations have come a long way since then.
The history of breathing apparatus is long and varied – from the 1904 introduction of the first reliable BA set, with a service life of up to two and a half hours, to the modern day launch of the telemetry in 2001.
The needs of the wearer have always played an important part in BA innovations, as it is vital safety is never compromised. Comfort remains a key requirement as this can have a major impact on a firefighters’ ability to work safely and effectively.
As a result, comfort has been recognised through innovation for many years. For example, the Dräger model 1924 breathing apparatus was designed to be worn with a face mask, replacing the uncomfortable method of breathing inside a helmet.
Because of its weight, SCBA can put strain on the individual user causing fatigue, and, depending on cylinder capacity and the accessories used, SCBA has the potential to be heavy. As firefighters are regularly involved in strenuous activity, developments in lightweight equipment are particularly important.
In 1929, Dräger developed light metal cylinders for respiratory protection and by 1998, technology had advanced to launch the lightest weight carbon composite cylinders, manufactured out of its Blyth, Northumberland plant – itself becoming the centre for excellence in BA manufacturing in 1980.
Wear and tear is another key consideration – particularly when thinking about the life-span of the equipment and cost implications for fire brigades. The introduction of state-of-the-art harness materials, moving from textile covered foam to a closed-cell rubber harness – specially designed to withstand the high level of impact on a daily basis – means today’s equipment is more suited to extended wear and frequent use.
Resistance to chemicals found today is also very important, meaning less time away from being decontaminated by specialist cleaning service providers.
Pioneering new ground
Dräger breathing apparatus has also played a big part in ground-breaking historical milestones over the years, including the 1913 world altitude record for aeroplanes, set with the help of Dräger high-altitude breathing apparatus.
In 1931, oxygen devices developed by Dräger allowed Dr. Auguste Piccard to become the first person to fly into the atmosphere using a gas balloon.
And, Dräger BA sets helped the first men to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgey reached the top of the world’s highest mountain, with the support the company’s breathing technology.
State-of-the-art solutions for a new era of firefighting
The BA of today is now more advanced than ever before and there are more options available to firefighters, according to their individual needs.
Technological advancements have enabled companies like Dräger to invest in state-of-the-art new techniques. The innovative pressure mapping technique for example, has created an optimised design which works around the human form. It identifies key pressure points and uses advanced motion analysis techniques to help visualise how objects move in relation to each other, improving the harness positioning on the latest Dräger designs and giving the wearer comfort and stability.
One of the biggest issues faced by firefighters wearing breathing apparatus is communicating effectively whilst in a hazardous situation – heightened by the number of well-documented communication failures through the years and missed messages contributing to firefighter fatalities. Often, a fire scenario will take a firefighter out of sight and communication and monitoring plays a vital role in protecting teams on the front line.
With many years’ technology behind it, Dräger has developed the advanced PSS Merlin System to support the needs of firefighters and it is currently the only telemetry system in operation within the UK fire sector. The system is a fully automatic, electronic breathing apparatus monitoring system, designed to enhance the safety of the firefighter during active firefighting duties, maintaining a disciplined entry control procedure and the accountability of all team members.
The system goes hand in hand with its Bodyguard 7000 – an electronic monitoring unit which provides continuous monitoring of personal information and operational status, including most importantly an accurate calculation of remaining air time which is updated every second and is based on current air consumption. An integrated system, designed with optimum comfort at the forefront, is then shared and monitored via the Entry Control Board, allowing the BA Entry Control Officer to monitor the exact status of up to 12 individual team members. Used alongside the new Merlin PC Modem, user monitoring has advanced from single Entry Control Point to the monitoring of an entire incident.
As a result of innovations like these, the concept of improved safety is one which has been welcomed by brigades, who trust that their workforce is well looked after. Remote monitoring through the telemetry system means teams can react immediately in the event of an emergency.
One of the key aims for Dräger within the context of the fire service, is offering Fire Authorities a total system solution where the total sum of the parts equates to the safest possible solution for firefighters. All the elements need to fit together with precision giving firefighters the ultimate protection in every situation, whilst demonstrating cost efficiencies.
The breathing apparatus of tomorrow will continue to be driven by technological advancements, user needs and regulatory changes. With chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear concerns in today’s society, firefighters must be equipped to face a range of different hazards. New standards are being implemented regularly around the world
As the sector continues to face new challenges, continuous innovation means that whatever the future holds, firefighters will be fully prepared for any situation they may face.
For more information, go to www.draeger.com