Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), vital personal protective equipment, allow firefighters to enter hazardous environments to perform essential interior operations including offensive fire attack, victim search, rescue and removal, ventilation, and overhaul. They are also used at nonfire incidents involving hazardous materials and confined spaces where there is a threat of toxic fumes or an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.

A number of well-documented incidents involving SCBA indicate that human errors, component failures, or a combination of factors may have contributed to deaths or injuries of firefighters and rescue personnel or presented potential injuries for them.


Three firefighters were killed when a flashover occurred during a live-burn training evolution in an acquired structure. Subsequent investigation of the firefighters` SCBA provided evidence that rapid component failure (including straps and low-pressure breathing hoses) may have been a contributing factor in preventing their escape from the sudden change in fire conditions. This incident occurred in 1987, before the advent of more stringent performance and direct-flame impingement testing procedures for SCBA certification.


In 1993, 11 firefighters suffered burn injuries in an explosion that occurred while they were trying to extinguish a sodium fire in a metal-processing plant. The firefighters were equipped with firefighting SCBA, some of which had older straps made of nonfire-resistant material and others that had newer, fire resistant harness assemblies. The straps on some of the older units melted from heat exposure and released, while the units equipped with the newer straps continued to function properly. Damage to low-pressure breathing hoses and facepieces was also noted at this fire. Although no current SCBA can provide adequate protection from an explosion of a molten metal like sodium, the newer SCBA performed better in this extreme situation than older units that had not been upgraded to meet the 1992 edition of NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus for the Fire Service (which was revised in 1997).


Three firefighters died of asphyxiation at a house fire in 1995. All three were wearing SCBA when they entered the house. During the investigation after the fire, the units were tested by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It was found that although the units were functional and capable of delivering air to the users, each failed to meet one or more of the performance tests required by NIOSH for certification.1 Problems were noted with the exhalation valves on the units and also with the calibration of the low-pressure alarms. Only one of four tested SCBA regulators met NIOSH flow-rate requirements. (The fourth was from an injured firefighter.) After undergoing the recommended periodic maintenance, inspection, and testing procedures, all four units met or exceeded the functional requirements. Despite these problems, investigators could not determine whether SCBA failure was a primary or contributing factor in the firefighters` deaths. Since this incident, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire has purchased new SCBA and revised its SCBA maintenance and testing program.


In March 1996, an empty SCBA cylinder was accidentally exposed to a corrosive metal cleaning agent in the bed of a pickup truck while it was being transported back to the fire station from a training exercise. The composite cylinder was refilled and replaced on a fire apparatus. The cylinder failed catastrophically six days later, causing major damage to the apparatus on which it was stored. Fortunately, the firefighters staffing the station were in the dayroom and were not injured by the blast. This incident underscores the need for training not only in the proper use of SCBA but in proper care and regular inspection procedures.

At least two additional incidents, one of which resulted in a firefighter fatality, have occurred recently during air-refilling operations involving breathing air cylinders.

These are extreme examples of catastrophic SCBA failures. The catastrophic failure of an SCBA is characterized by the sudden and unexpected failure of any component that would subsequently expose the user to a hazardous environment or introduce a major complication that hinders the ability to escape from the environment. Some examples of catastrophic failures are cylinder rupture, facepiece lens failure, harness failure, and complete regulator failure. Due to the nature of the hazards faced by firefighters and rescue personnel while using SCBA, there is a high probability that the occurrence of such a failure during fire or rescue operations would result in serious injury or death.

Failures of this nature are relatively uncommon occurrences, especially considering the very large number of uses of SCBA by firefighters and rescue personnel each day. It is likely that the continued improvement of testing and certification requirements by the fire service and SCBA manufacturers has resulted in the low number of catastrophic failures. Additionally, the incorporation of new materials in the design and construction of firefighting SCBA has improved durability and reliability, further reducing the incidence of catastrophic failures in units that are properly tested and maintained according to manufacturers` recommendations.


While catastrophic failures are rare, the evidence suggests that “low-order” failures of SCBA are more common. Examples of low-order failures include free-flowing or improperly connected regulators, improperly tightened or connected hoses, inadequate face-to-facepiece seal that results in air leakage, or blown O-rings during cylinder changes. These problems are often attributable to operator error or inadequate preventive maintenance. Although these failures may not directly result in firefighter death or injury, they are of concern because they may reduce efficiency or hamper the coordination required for safe and successful operations. For example, a low-order failure of a ladder truck crew member`s SCBA may delay ventilation efforts, thus slowing the advance of the engine company attacking the fire.

One of the most common failures of the SCBA system (i.e., SCBA + Firefighter = System) is the failure to use it. Even with the current emphasis on firefighter health and safety and the expanding knowledge of the hazards posed by the products of combustion, some firefighters still fail to use SCBA during interior operations in smoke-filled environments, especially during salvage and overhaul.


When properly maintained, tested, and used by well-trained firefighters, modern SCBA that comply with NFPA 1981 (1992 and 1997 editions) should provide years of trouble-free service with little possibility of catastrophic failure. Although modern, NFPA-compliant SCBA are durable and reliable, they require regular inspection and maintenance to maintain these characteristics. Many of the complaints NIOSH receives about SCBA problems are directly attributable to a lack of, or improperly performed, preventive maintenance.

Manufacturers` recommendations. Every manufacturer has recommended preventive maintenance procedures for its SCBA. These procedures are included with the unit when it is shipped, and many manufacturers will also have a field service representative personally review the procedures with the fire department. The manufacturers` maintenance recommendations should be considered a minimum. SCBA subjected to frequent use may require maintenance at more frequent intervals. Most manufacturers recommend annual flow tests. At least one manufacturer gives the additional recommendation of rebuilding the unit every three to six years or more often if subjected to frequent use.

Training and certification. Only properly trained and qualified personnel who have been certified by the SCBA manufacturer as capable of performing such work should perform preventive maintenance procedures. Some fire departments have a dedicated “air shop” where SCBA are serviced by certified technicians who are fire department employees. Other departments may send SCBAs to a private firm specializing in servicing their particular units. Unfortunately, many departments have not adopted the recommended procedures regarding routine SCBA maintenance. Routine preventive maintenance is the only way to ensure that SCBA will properly protect firefighters.

Another problem is posed by the so-called “midnight mechanics” who attempt to repair SCBAs without the proper training, tools, or replacement parts. Although SCBA are becoming easier to maintain, they are still complex apparatus that depend on maintenance performed by skilled technicians for their reliability. The legal ramifications of allowing a noncertified person to repair SCBA could be severe. Even more important are the confidence and safety of the firefighters who must face extreme conditions while wearing their SCBA. Knowing that they have been properly maintained and inspected can make all the difference.

Daily maintenance. The routine SCBA maintenance tasks such as daily inspection, cleaning, and disinfection are usually handled by field personnel and are an integral part of overall preventive maintenance. However, care must be taken to ensure that these tasks are properly performed. Only those cleaning and disinfection solutions recommended by the manufacturer should be used on SCBA. Using other cleaning solutions or procedures could damage the units.

To prevent problems from occurring during daily inspection and cleaning, firefighters should be trained in the proper procedures and cleaning solutions as well as in how to recognize the signs and symptoms of problems requiring that SCBA be removed from service and referred to qualified service technicians.

Storage. Some common problems encountered with SCBA are related to their storage. They should be kept as clean as possible, which may preclude storing them on parts of the fire apparatus that are exposed to weather and road dirt or grime. Store facepieces in bags to ensure that they remain clean and ready to use.

Standards. Fire departments that do not have a comprehensive SCBA program in place, including preventive maintenance procedures, can become familiar with NFPA 1404, Standard for a Fire Department Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus Program. Using this document as a blueprint will help you to implement your own program to help ensure compliance with regulations. More importantly, a well-designed and implemented SCBA program will help ensure that firefighters are venturing into harm`s way with safe and effective protective equipment.

Training. As with any area of fire department operations, there is no substitute for proper training with SCBA. Firefighters need to be familiar with SCBA operation while performing tasks like fire attack, victim search, rescue, ventilation, salvage, and overhaul. Firefighters and rescue personnel should also be trained in routine preventive maintenance procedures such as daily inspection, cleaning, disinfection, and cylinder changes.

Basic familiarization with and orientation to SCBA should be part of every firefighter`s initial indoctrination. Members should receive extensive training in the use of SCBA under low-stress conditions, as well as during simulated fireground operations. This training should be conducted according to recognized standards, using methodology approved by the appropriate fire training agency.

Despite the fact that modern, NFPA-compliant SCBA are extremely durable, the materials used in their construction have physical limitations. Firefighters and maintenance personnel must understand that they are not indestructible and that the potential exists to expose SCBA to factors in the environment that may contribute to failure. Basic training in SCBA use should include a discussion of the limitations of SCBA, as firefighters need to be aware that situations may be encountered in which SCBA will not provide adequate protection and may be subject to catastrophic failure. For example, incidents involving hazardous materials other than those commonly encountered at structure fires (see USFA Major Fires Investigation Report, Sodium Explosion Critically Burns Firefighters, Newton, MA).

In addition to initial training and certification in SCBA use, continued practice and advanced training must also be addressed to ensure that firefighters maintain proficiency. Regular drills will improve firefighters` familiarity and increase their comfort level with SCBA in hazardous situations. Many fire departments and fire training agencies offer specialized “Smoke Diver” or breathing equipment specialist training courses to further develop firefighters` SCBA skills. These are often conducted using a train-the-trainer format, the goal of which is to train instructors to teach advanced SCBA courses to firefighters and rescuers in their home jurisdictions.

Inspections. Unfortunately, the tendency exists to treat SCBA as a tool more akin to an ax or pike pole than as a vital piece of personal protective equipment. Even in busy fire departments, firefighters are likely to perform only a cursory check of their assigned SCBA when going on duty. To prevent “low-order” failures, it is imperative that firefighters thoroughly inspect and test the functions of SCBA as often as possible. In a career department, this should happen every day and should be second nature. A volunteer department should make SCBA inspection and practice part of every scheduled meeting, drill session, or training class.

Firefighters can be encouraged to perform a “buddy check” with their partner prior to entering a hazardous environment. Each partner can quickly check to ensure that the other has SCBA properly donned and operational. This way, problems can be identified and corrected before they hamper interior operations or injure firefighters.


The following actions are highly recommended to prevent SCBA failures leading to firefighter injuries or deaths:

Preventive maintenance. Regular preventive maintenance will help ensure firefighters` safety and well-being and compliance with regulations. Fire departments should implement SCBA preventive maintenance programs. Regular maintenance by qualified personnel will help prevent SCBA failures and should be conducted using manufacturers` recommendations as a minimum standard. SCBA subjected to extreme levels of use should be maintained and tested at more frequent intervals.

User training. Firefighters must receive complete training in the use and limitations of SCBA before being exposed to hazardous environments. In addition to initial training, continued drills and practice should be conducted to maintain proficiency with SCBA. Training should also be provided on proper field maintenance and cleaning procedures. Thorough, continuous user training should help decrease the incidence of low-order SCBA failures. Training should emphasize the limitations of SCBA to help ensure that firefighters do not put themselves in situations where SCBA will not provide adequate protection from the hazardous environment.

Problem recognition. Many of the problems reported to NIOSH annually are related to preventive maintenance or training deficiencies. Firefighters and maintenance personnel should be able to recognize potential problems that may lead to failures of SCBA or breathing air cylinders. Any SCBA or breathing air cylinder that is dropped, run over, burned, exposed to chemicals, or otherwise mistreated should be immediately removed from service and be examined and tested by qualified repair personnel.

Record keeping. The importance of maintaining accurate records and documentation pertaining to SCBA cannot be overstated and is a critical part of a comprehensive fire department SCBA program. Records should track preventive maintenance actions including daily inspections, routine tests, and repair work. Keep an individual record for each breathing air cylinder to ensure that hydrostatic tests are performed at required intervals. Include in the training records SCBA-related training and certifications. Maintain records on facepiece fit-testing for each member.

Regular upgrades. Fire departments should upgrade or replace SCBA to meet the current edition of NFPA 1981, to reduce the possibility of repeating past tragedies. SCBA with demand-type regulators do not provide firefighters with adequate respiratory protection and should be replaced with positive-pressure type units.

Use of standards. The NFPA standards mentioned previously in this report can be very useful to fire departments developing SCBA programs. Programs meeting the requirements contained in these standards are likely to be compliant with applicable federal and state regulations.

Pursuit of technology. Fire departments should continue to encourage the development and incorporation of new technology in SCBA design and construction. The use of new materials and construction methods holds the promise of stronger, lighter, more capable SCBA, providing firefighters with increased safety and protection from hazardous environments.

More information on preventing SCBA failures can be found in U.S. Fire Administration Technical Report 088, Prevention of Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus Failures. Copies of this and other USFA reports can be obtained by writing to the U.S. Fire Administration or from the USFA website ( n


1. USFA Technical Report 078, Three Firefighters Die in Pittsburgh House Fire, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

ADAM K. THIEL is a member of the United States Fire Administration Major First Project Team. A career firefighter/EMT, hazardous materials technician, and fire instructor in Northern Virginia, he is currently pursuing a master`s degree in public administration.


The United States Fire Administration (USFA) develops reports on selected major fires throughout the country. The fires usually involve multiple deaths or a large loss of property. But the primary criterion for deciding to do a report is whether it will result in significant “lessons learned.” In some cases, these lessons bring to light new knowledge about fire–the effect of building construction or contents, human behavior in fire, and so on. In other cases, the lessons are not new but serious enough to highlight once again because of another fire tragedy. In some cases, special reports are developed to discuss events, drills, or new technologies or tactics that are of interest to the fire service.

The reports are sent to fire magazines and are distributed at national and regional fire meetings. On a continuing basis, the reports are available on request from the USFA. Announcements of their availability are published widely in fire journals and newsletters.

This body of work provides detailed information on the nature of the fire problem for policymakers who must decide on allocations of resources between fire and other pressing problems and within the fire service to improve codes and code enforcement, training, public fire education, building technology, and other related areas.

The Fire Administration, which has no regulatory authority, sends an experienced fire investigator into a community after a major incident only after having conferred with the local fire authorities to ensure that the USFA`s assistance and presence would be supportive and would in no way interfere with any review of the incident that the community itself is conducting. The intent is not to arrive during the event or even immediately after but rather after the dust settles so that all important aspects of the incident can be completely and objectively reviewed. Local authorities review the USFA`s report while it is in draft. The USFA investigator or team is available to local authorities should they like to obtain technical assistance for their own investigation. –United States Fire Administration

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