Fire service professionals and industry experts gathered at the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh, UK, for a roundtable discussion on the current state and future of breathing apparatus (BA) for firefighters.
Hosted by MSA Safety, the purpose of the event was to understand in greater detail what is important when choosing breathing apparatus, what challenges are faced and how equipment needs to evolve. Comparisons between the experiences of first responders and those working in industry were explored, as well as the contrasting issues faced across the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
Firefighter safety is clearly something that is top of everyone’s agenda across the fire and rescue service, as well as within industry where fire is a serious hazard of the job. As a leader in the development of breathing apparatus, MSA is keen to drive the conversation on how the industry can continually improve developments to ensure that firefighter safety remains the utmost priority – after all, lives are at stake and we all want firefighters to get home safely to their families at the end of each day.
The round-table panel was chaired by Duncan White, Group Editor at MDM Publishing. The panel was made up of key industry figures with varying roles, responsibilities and experience in the fire industry across the UK and Europe, and they were joined by an audience who were given the opportunity to question the panel at the end of the discussion.
Simplicity and modularity
Duncan opened the discussion by asking a big question: ‘What should BA be?’ Apart from obviously being fit for purpose in terms of safety and protection for the user, it was generally agreed by the panel that simplicity was a key requirement. Equipment that plays such a vital role in safety must not be difficult to wear or use. Giving an example of why, Karvin Ahuja explained that Switzerland has a lot of volunteer firefighters who have a limited number of training hours each year, meaning that simplicity of use is very important to ensure complete familiarity with the equipment.
Modularity was another important consideration across the board. Andre Beard described how industrial firefighters can often have different and quite specific requirements, depending on the particular nature of the risks they face and also how these requirements might vary across the same site. Therefore, it would be beneficial to be able to mix and match components to create the most appropriate BA set. Reuben Beavis suggested that a universal backplate could carry different cylinder styles and would give firefighters the flexibility to carry more equipment or make it easier to enter confined spaces such as aircraft.
Improvements to current BA sets
Patrick Tawney felt that one area for improvement was in communications between firefighters, between firefighters and entry-control officers and between firefighters and the public. Jason Traynor from MSA Safety agreed, explaining that fire-scene communications come up often during their market research and that the company is looking to develop systems that are independent of helmets and BA to enable better ‘team talk’ between firefighters.
Asked about designing BA sets (and indeed all PPE) for female firefighters, Caroline Anderson thought that it wasn’t so much a gender issue but simply ensuring that equipment was suitable for smaller people in general, and she gave examples of face-mask fit, overall weight and belts that could be tightened properly on smaller bodies. Responding to this, Jason Traynor said that the latest face mask from MSA had been developed in three sizes and was available with three sizes of nose cup, allowing users to find the right solution. He also agreed that this was not just a gender issue and added that it goes back to modularity and not having a one-size-fits-all approach.
Aside from the equipment itself, the process of purchasing of BA by fire and rescue services (FRSs) prompted some discussion, both among the panel and with members of the audience.
Public-service procurement procedures can be restrictive in terms of preferred suppliers and financial pressures, and the panel agreed that access to a wider range of products as well as more flexible ways of paying for them would be beneficial. Philip Martin felt that the voice of the firefighter was quiet amid the bureaucracy of the procurement process, which was often influenced by individuals other than the end users of the equipment. Value for money was also highlighted with regard to the whole-life cost of the equipment rather than the initial cost.
Speaking of his experience in the private sector, Brent Briard said that it was easier to make the case for any equipment needed so long as it could be properly justified.
Protocols and risk assessment
Standard protocols in the use of BA can potentially hamper firefighters’ ability to do their job. In addition, generic risk assessments can be problematic – there was a strong feeling it would bemore appropriate to carry out a risk assessment specific to the site. Andre Beard added that industrial teams are best placed to carry out their own risk assessments and thereby ensure they have the right equipment for the sort of incidents they are likely to encounter. This is preferable to firefighters turning up and having to follow general procedure because they don’t know what they’re dealing with.
Brent Briard described how the development of more flexible protocols, perhaps incorporating new technologies such as electronic BA boards, might improve efficiency and allow for better use of BA, for example by cutting the time the user spends dealing with unnecessary protocols and therefore extending the time available to work in BA.
Cleaning and maintenance
Procedures for cleaning PPE vary around the world, but the panel agreed it was an important issue that needs to be taken more seriously than ever before. The potential health effects of exposure to combustion products have been widely reported, and the dirty helmet worn as a badge of honour would not be acceptable today.
There is an ongoing need to educate firefighters about the need to look after their kit and to ensure that PPE is properly cleaned and decontaminated. Jason Traynor added that MSA was aware of the issues and that its latest products were designed to be easy to clean. He also said that providing clarity on how to maintain the equipment and being aware of what is reasonable to expect of customers in terms of maintenance were both crucial considerations.
BA for fire investigators
The panel discussed how in the past, fire investigators worked using only a fabric mask, whereas now BA is considered essential to prevent potential exposure to toxic materials during their investigation. This again raised the important point about education and eradicating past traditions where the wearing of BA by fire investigators might have been frowned upon.
Panel members reiterated their desire to see the development of modular BA systems, allowing FRSs to select the combination of equipment most appropriate for their needs, possibly allowing different-sized cylinders to be used depending on application. Such modularity would also enable components to be upgraded throughout the life of the product as technologies evolve and budgets allow.
Reuben Beavis described the potential for a cylinder-less system incorporating catalytic conversion of carbon-monoxide to carbon dioxide and then the artificial photosynthesis of oxygen suitable for breathing.
The panel agreed on the need for manufacturers and FRSs to build and maintain relationships, both before and after procurement, and it was noted that manufacturers are today much keener to work with their customers than they used to be. Product feedback and ongoing support play vital roles in ensuring that BA remains fit for purpose throughout its service life.
Duncan concluded the discussion by noting that it was always a pleasure to see companies focused on firefighter safety above all else.
MSA is currently producing a webinar of the event which will be well publicised when available.
For more information, go to www.msasafety.com