CONDUCTING A SUCSESSFUL SCBA EVALUATION
BRIAN A. COLELLA
Is your department in the market for new self-contained breathing apparatus? If so, do you have questions about how to begin the process of evaluating the many brands of SCBA to determine which is best for you? Are you unsure about the makeup of an SCBA evaluation committee? Do you need a game plan for organized field testing? Are you confused as to how to record the results of your SCBA testing?
There currently are nine manufacturers of SCBA that carry the NFPA-compliant label. If your department is going to purchase new SCBA in the near future, you owe it to your firefighters and community to conduct a well-planned, thorough SCBA evaluation. By so doing, you`ll be able to purchase a top-performing SCBA at a reasonable cost. The following provides a logical evaluation outline for achieving these goals.
THE NFPA 1981 STANDARD
Before an SCBA evaluation can begin, you must have some background information on applicable standards. Begin by looking at NFPA 1981, Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus for Fire Fighters, 1992 edition, which details the performance and testing requirements for open-circuit SCBA used in the fire service. These requirements are in addition to the basic NIOSH/MSHA (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health/Mine Safety and Health Administration) certification re-quired of all SCBA.
The 1981 standard will familiarize you with the tests an SCBA must pass to become NFPA-compliant. SCBA for the fire service will carry both the NIOSH/ MSHA certification label and the NFPA-compliance label. The latter is determined by a third-party testing agency used by
The third-party testing agency certifies each SCBA to the NFPA minimum performance requirements through the following tests:
environmental temperature perfor-
fabric flame-resistance performance,
fabric heat-resistance performance,
thread heat-resistance performance,
accelerated corrosion-resistance perfor-
face piece lens abrasion-resistance per-
communications performance, and
heat- and flame-resistance perfor-
These performance tests, described in detail in NFPA 1981, are designed to determine an SCBA`s suitability for use in the extreme conditions found during firefighting operations. Familiarizing yourself with the tests will give you a basic knowledge of what is required of an SCBA and prevent you from needless duplication in your evaluation process or specifications. For example, it would be senseless to conduct a freeze test with prospective SCBAs, since this test would already have been done in the Environmental Temperature Performance Test. You need only specify that the SCBA be certified under the NFPA 1981 standard, 1992 edition.
Other standards you should review and be familiar with are ANSI (American National Standards Institute) Z88.2, Practices for Respiratory Protection; ANSI Z88.5, Practices for Respiratory Protection for the Fire Service; and the SCBA-related requirements of NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program.
THE EVALUATION COMMITTEE
Your SCBA evaluation committee should consist of representatives from each major line and staff area of the department. Logical choices would be firefighters and officers from line companies; one each from SCBA maintenance, training, safety, and operations; and a high-ranking chief officer. The latter adds legitimacy and “power” to the group when cooperation is needed from other officers in the department.
The committee should select a chairperson, who will set the agenda for the evaluations and keep the group focused on it. The chairperson also serves as the contact between the committee and the respective SCBA manufacturers. All requests for information or additional equipment should come from the chairperson.
MANUFACTURER`S PRESENTATION AND
The evaluation process begins by inviting the various SCBA manufacturers to conduct a presentation for the SCBA committee. This presentation should include the following:
a detailed description of the SCBA`s major components;
instructions on donning, doffing, and operation;
emergency procedures, such as bypass and buddy-breathing operations;
basic troubleshooting and operational level maintenance for problems encountered in the field; and
cleaning and disinfecting procedures for the SCBA after use.
The manufacturer`s representative should leave at least two SCBAs for fire department testing and provide copies of the operator`s and service manuals and technical SCBA specifications; most companies may be able to offer operational level training videotapes. Also, be sure to request samples of any features such as radio communication devices, voice-amplification devices, supplied airline, and confined space products and accessories.
Once trained by the manufacturers, it is then the committee`s responsibility to train the firefighters who are to perform the actual evaluation (although in small departments, this can be done simultaneously). Each firefighter should be instructed in the operations listed above before being permitted to wear the SCBA during testing. A firefighter “detailed” to an evaluating company should not use the new SCBA unless previously checked off for attending the training sessions.
Each firefighter participating in the evaluation must be thoroughly familiar with all operations of the SCBA being tested. Thorough training will overcome many of the objections associated with anything new and will give the firefighter confidence before using the SCBA in the field. Procedures such as donning, doffing, operating all valves and gauges, changing cylinders, and sanitizing must be practiced until they are routine.
COLLECTING THE DATA
A good SCBA evaluation always should include a means of collecting and tabulating the results of testing. An SCBA evaluation form satisfies this requirement and ensures that each firefighter considers and ranks all of the main components and functions of each SCBA.
Design your evaluation form carefully to make sure you obtain the relevant information you`ll need to make an informed decision. Include items readily determined by firefighters using the SCBA, such as comfort and ease of operation. Rank responses on a scale of one to five. The following areas should be covered:
ease of donning;
visibility of the pressure gauge;
clarity of speech possible with the speaking diaphragm;
suitability of the audible warning device (Can it be heard in noisy environments? Can firefighters operating in teams discern whose warning alarm is sounding?);
comfort and design of the backplate
ease of cylinder changing (on the
ground and on a firefighter`s back) and ability of the backplate to accept various cylinder sizes (e.g., replacing a 30-minute with a 60-minute cylinder);
visibility, comfort, and fit characteristics of the face piece;
ease of operating the demand regulator, including ease of connection to the face piece, bypass operation, and donning reset–or standby–function;
operation of the buddy-breathing sys- tem, if so equipped; and
length and profile of the airline hoses.
In addition, add a “comments” section at the end of the form to allow the firefighters to add anything else they feel is pertinent to each particular SCBA.
Once designed and printed, evaluation forms will be used to identify the positive and negative aspects of each SCBA. By using a one-to-five ranking system, the committee can tabulate and compare scores of the various breathing apparatus. You may wish to assign more weight to features that are most important to your fire department operations–for example, you may wish to weigh comfort and design of the backplate more heavily than the buddy-breathing operation.
Once initial training is completed, the SCBA evaluation moves to the drill field for initial testing. This part of the evaluation allows firefighters and the evaluation committee to test and rate the functions of each SCBA under controlled conditions.
The evolutions in the controlled testing phase should consist of practical scenarios that simulate actual firefighting situations. A large department usually chooses its own training center for the controlled testing; a smaller department can use a regional facility or other structure.
During the controlled testing phase, the SCBA should be put through the paces, and all of the operational functions and manufacturer`s recommended procedures should be tested. Firefighters should practice donning and doffing; normal operations such as search and rescue, ventilation, and fire attack; and emergency procedures such as bypass function. Practice should continue until each firefighter has a firm grip of the operating principles and the confidence necessary to use the breathing apparatus in the field.
Once the evaluation committee and the evaluating firefighters have become comfortable with each type of SCBA in controlled conditions, it is time to begin field testing under day-to-day conditions. If your department is big, it may be possible to outfit an entire company with a particular brand of SCBA. If the department is small, one firefighter can be issued an SCBA. No matter how you do it, remember to rotate the various types of SCBA to allow firefighters the opportunity to compare the features of each unit. If the units aren`t rotated, your personnel will be able to compare only one new unit against the SCBA currently in service.
Enough time should be allowed to give each SCBA a good workout under actual conditions. Busy fire departments may require only a week; others may require a month or more. The committee must be the judge of the time necessary. Don`t be afraid to extend the time frame if you feel enough experience has not yet been gained.
During the field testing, each SCBA should be judged on its suitability to local firefighting needs and conditions. Its performance during operations should be gauged and its overall design and ruggedness judged. Are your personnel satisfied with the characteristics and operation of the SCBA? Do you feel it will meet your needs and be a reliable performer for 10 or 15 years?
The field test also provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate each manufacturer`s daily, weekly, or monthly operational level maintenance and inspection procedures. Are the manufacturer`s recommendations for routine maintenance easy enough to be handled at company level? This is an important consideration for long-term use because if maintenance isn`t user-friendly, the SCBA probably won`t be cared for properly.
Depending on the unique characteristics of your local area, you may wish to conduct specialized tests with each SCBA. Two such popular tests are the “water submersion test” and the “fogging test.” If you know of SCBA evaluations conducted at departments of similar size and with similar demographics, you may wish to contact them to find out if they used any special testing during their evaluation. Remember, however, not to duplicate the NFPA 1981 series of tests.
The water submersion test determines how an SCBA will function if a firefighter inadvertently falls into the water. It is not a test to determine if you can dive with the SCBA. It usually is done in a pool, under strictly controlled conditions. Pay particular attention to safety during any water submersion tests. One trained diver for each firefighter should be in the pool.
Fogging tests determine how much the face piece will fog–usually in cold conditions–while using an SCBA in your department`s usual way. For instance, if it is your procedure to have firefighters don their face pieces and stand outside with backup lines or tools before going into the fire/emergency structure, it`s better to find out now whether your crews will be blind once they hook up to their air supply and enter the structure. You`ll also be able to determine just how quickly–if at all–those face pieces can be cleared during use.
LONG-TERM COSTS: THE BIG PICTURE
All too often, the committee will purchase SCBAs solely on the basis of field testing results, without looking at the long-term cost of ownership, ease of maintenance, and customer support by the manufacturer. Any SCBA manufacturer can offer a very attractive purchase price–a low bid. You may soon discover, however, that this is just the tip of the iceberg as you become buried in time-consuming repairs and a large inventory of costly spare parts.
True, long-term cost of ownership will not be readily apparent during the SCBA evaluation. Research by the committee is the only way to discover what it really will cost in terms of money and manpower to operate an SCBA system over a 10- or 15-year period. The information the evaluation committee needs to obtain includes the following:
length of the manufacturer`s warranty and any exclusions to that warranty;
cost and interval of any mandatory factory service or overhaul of the SCBA;
cost of mandatory replacement parts and how often these parts need to be replaced;
manufacturer service support after the sale;
manufacturer training support after the sale, including operational and service technician training; and
modularity of the SCBA system, enabling standardization with supplied air respirators (SARs), confined-space rescue equipment, and chemical protective suits.
In conducting this research, keep in mind that the manufacturer is not your best source of information. Some manufacturers will paint a rosy picture of long-term costs and ease of maintenance, disguising what will really be necessary. Others will paint the same picture with regard to their training and service support after the sale.
The only way to find out what it really will be like to deal with a particular company and its products is to talk to personnel responsible for maintaining SCBAs in departments in cities of similar size. Your counterparts in fire departments of similar size or demographics can tell you how well a particular brand of SCBA holds up under the daily demands of firefighting and how often it really needs repair or service. Finally, your fire service colleagues will be able to answer questions about how a manufacturer services its customers after the sale.
NARROWING THE FIELD
With your evaluation complete, you can now choose one of three options. You can issue a completely generic SCBA specification and allow all manufacturers an equal opportunity to bid, or you may write your specs around only one manufacturer, effectively locking out the others. Your best choice, however, may be to narrow the field to the top two or three finishers and invite the finalists to bid, if local regulations and laws permit.
Allowing all manufacturers to bid on a completely generic specification renders your entire evaluation process a waste of time. If, on the other hand, you write your specifications around only one manufacturer, you lose the benefits of competitive bidding. If, however, you narrow the field to the top two or three, you`ll get an SCBA that has done well in your evaluation, and your municipality will benefit from the cost savings involved in the competitive bidding process.
Narrowing the field is accomplished by analyzing and interpreting all of the data collected. In addition to the results of the controlled and field testing, be sure to factor in the long-term ownership costs, ease of maintenance, and manufacturer training and service support. Once all pertinent information is analyzed, rank each SCBA in order of preference.
WRITING YOUR REQUEST FOR PROPOSAL
Congratulations, your SCBA evaluation is complete. The committee`s attention should now be focused on writing the actual Request for Proposal (RFP). Also known as the “Invitation for Bids,” this document will set forth the specifications, terms, and conditions your department/municipality finds minimally acceptable for bidding by each SCBA manufacturer. It will be mailed to those manufacturers who have participated in the evaluation process.
When developing the specifications for your RFP, resist the temptation to pick and choose your favorite items from each of the breathing apparatus you tested–in other words, don`t try to design your own SCBA. You won`t be successful, and it will lead to countless “exceptions” to the specific requirements in your RFP. Worse yet, it could lead to bid protests that will at best delay your purchase and at worst lead to litigation.
If you`ve narrowed the field to the top performers, this part of the process is easy. Simply list the specific brands and model numbers that are acceptable (provided local laws and regulations permit). By doing this, you avoid having to write complete technical requirements for each of an SCBA`s many components. Unless you are sure that only one brand of SCBA meets your needs and you can document it, don`t “rig” the bidding process by writing your RFP around only one manufacturer`s technical specifications.
The RFP should reference NFPA standards as a minimum and should list the following:
specific SCBA models acceptable;
options or accessories required, such as buddy breathing or supplied airline attachments;
delivery schedule after awarding of bid;
spare parts required, and whether you expect to pay for them separately or have them provided as part of the bid;
tools and testing equipment required;
supporting materials required, such as operator and service manuals, videotapes, and donning posters;
operator level training required;
service technician training required;
fit testing support required;
whether any of the components, such as face pieces, must be serialized; and
request of special pricing for parts and labor of any future standard-required up-grades during the service life of the SCBA.
In addition, your purchasing or finance people should list the general terms and conditions for doing business with your municipality. Be sure to list the deadline for receipt of bids as well as the time and place of bid opening.
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As you begin your SCBA evaluation, go in with an open mind. Don`t make rash judgments about any breathing apparatus. Don`t be afraid to call on the manufacturers for help whenever it`s needed. You now have the background information necessary to conduct a thorough and fair SCBA evaluation. You should be able to sort through the manufacturer`s “sales pitch” and obtain the critical information needed to make an informed decision. Following this procedure in a logical and organized manner will ensure that your firefighters will be provided with a top-notch SCBA at a reasonable cost to your municipality. Good luck with your evaluation! n
BRIAN A. COLELLA, a volunteer firefighter for more than 15 years, is a senior field instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and fire service manager for National Draeger in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He also served as firefighter safety specialist for the City of Pittsburgh.