TIME TO CHANGE OR NOT?

This month, the question of what needs to be interoperable and interchangeable came rushing headlong. The buzzwords “interoperable” and “interchangeable” have been thrown around for a long time. Now we have a decision to make regarding the need for interchangeability. The backdrop for the story is the change proposed to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1981, Standard on Open Circuit Breathing Apparatus for Fire and Emergency Services, which sets the design and performance guidelines for self-contained breathing apparatus.

The manufacturers of SCBAs conform to these guidelines and build our equipment to meet the requirements and specifications identified in these standards. The courts use the NFPA standards to evaluate what is considered the minimum levels of performance or reasonable man rule when deciding civil and criminal cases. Fire service organizations almost exclusively buy NFPA-compliant equipment.

This month, the NFPA 1981 technical review committee placed for public comment a proposal to change the standard in 2007. A subcommittee of the InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization and InterOperability, also known as the InterOperability Assessment Board or the IAB, suggested changing the standard to require a standard air bottle interchangeable between all makes and brands of SCBAs.

At face value, it seems like a reasonable idea-make all SCBA air cylinders interchangeable with all SCBAs. Or is it a reasonable idea? Are we having air cylinder shortages at major events? Will this make the fireground a safer place? Some believe this is a good place to start on interoperability and interchangeability. I disagree. While I commend the IAB for bringing forward the suggestion, I strongly disagree with the need at this time.

Fortunately, the NFPA standards are consensus standards. That means all firefighters can have input into the process. This change to NFPA 1981 is still just an idea-a proposal-so you have time to send in your comments and suggestions (until March 3, 2006). You do not have to be an NFPA member-any firefighter can comment.

The real question is what is driving this push for interchangeability. I have spoken to lots of firefighters from large and small departments, and no one can remember having a problem because of a lack of air bottles. Where did the push come from? I have spoken to the IAB chairman, and he stated that this idea has been discussed intermittently for a couple of years. It was brought to the attention of the IAB to help move it off the table. The IAB request to the NFPA committee and the subsequent trade publication interest have done that. It is now out in the open for the user community to decide if it’s a good idea, a necessary and practical one.

Conceptually, if you need that many bottles at anything, you probably don’t need to be there in the first place. If we need to use multiple bottles and/or it is too unsafe to change a bottle or use a cascade to refill, whom (what customers) are we saving?

We already are carrying a spare bottle for every SCBA and, generally, two spares are the norm. Cascades on air and light trucks are generally available to replace air on-scene. The fittings on all bottles are standard Compressed Gas Association fittings, all 100 percent standard fittings. Now pressures and volumes can be different, and that can cause refill issues between department cascades. But working that out ahead of time with neighbors is doable.

A big problem is backward and forward compatibility: The ability of a department to cannibalize SCBAs and parts to keep SCBAs in service will become a major issue. Departments unable to replace all of their SCBAs will have problems between the 2007-compliant SCBAs/bottles and the non-2007 compliant SCBAs/bottles.

I have read that to replace the more than a million bottles in service at $700 apiece would run about $900 million-ridiculous money to spend on something that isn’t broken. There also are some manufacturers whose entire systems, frames, regulators, and masks may be affected by the proposed change. That cost could be crippling to some smaller organizations.

So is the interchangeability of air cylinders an issue whose time has come? I think not, given my experience and what I perceive to be more relevant issues that need to be addressed with the limited funds available to the fire service. It strikes me that if as much attention were paid to radios or standards that mean something tangible on the fireground like NFPA 1710, 1720, and 1500, the fire service would be a better place.

A relatively simple problem, hydrant connections, America connecting to America, is a solvable issue of interchangeability that is not a new one if we look at hose thread and the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. Following the Great Baltimore Fire, which destroyed 1,526 buildings and 70 blocks, and the Oakland Hills fire, which claimed 25 lives and injured 150 and destroyed 2,450 homes and 437 apartments, these cities changed to national standard hydrants. Incompatibility of hose and hydrant connections is cited as a major cause of loss in both of these events.

Pathetically today, 18 of the 48 most populated cities do not have national standard hydrants, although 40 of those cities do have national standard hose connections on their hydrants. Some cities have standard pumper connections, but amazingly five major cities have no national standard hydrant connections at all. Interchangeability of hose connections still seems like a good idea to me. I guess the bean counters in those cities are waiting to see if the laws of thermodynamics are applicable in their towns, or maybe the departments there are so well staffed and equipped they would never need any assistance. Never. Do the names Captain Smith and the Titanic ring a bell?

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