SCBA: U.S. vs. International Standards and Procedures


The aim of firefighting is the same the world over, whether it be in London, Chicago, or downtown New Delhi. Among those aims, of course, are to rescue casualties; promote their recovery; extinguish fire; and, most importantly, ensure that the firefighters work safely and return home alive after each shift.

However, the way that firefighters are protected differs considerably the world over, as are the procedures adopted to protect them, such as those pertaining to the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Certainly, the concept of SCBA giving fresh air to protect the wearers is the same, although it does that in a slightly different way depending on the standard to which it was built. European Norm (EN) standard SCBAs are required in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and some other parts of the world.


It may immediately appear that an SCBA sold in the United States is more advanced and offers more safety to the user than one sold in Europe. In reality, this is mostly not the case.

(1) MSA Firehawk: a comparison of the profile of the U.S. and the European set.

(2) MSA Airmaxx: Note the lack of clutter at the base and around the first stage reducer valve. This can include a cylinder “quick-fill” plug-in point on the righthand side. The European MSA/Auer sets are also capable of being “twinned up” with two cylinders. The cylinder shown is the popular 6.8 × 300 bar, 46-minute unit. The helmet is the MSA Gallet F2 SF (Structural Fire).

(3) MSA Airmaxx Exxtreme: Note the “SL,” or single-line air delivery. This is just one hose (hose-in-hose technology), with a low-pressure warning whistle and two demand valve plug-in points mounted on the gauge console, within easy reach. There are no electronic speech transmitters; it is a streamlined unit. The helmet is the MSA Gallet F2, a popular choice for brigades; the mask is clipped directly to the helmet. (Photos courtesy of MSA and author.)

The differences between the SCBA available in the United States and in Europe and some other parts of the world include the following:

  • A European SCBA will always have a neck strap to secure the mask to the body when not in use, and woe betide any firefighter who doesn’t use it!
  • A face mask-mounted demand valve/regulator isn’t required to have a bypass or supplementary air feature, although all units have it. The EN versions of the Draeger PSS100 and the MSA FireHawk have a pushbutton front to bypass rather than the U.S.-style “turn-on side-valve” option.
  • Pressure gauges will read in bar pressure with graduations every 10 bars [150 pounds per square inch (psi)] rather than psi or ¾, ½, ¾ readings, and a standard gauge-mounted warning whistle will operate at 55 bar ± 5 bar (approximately 800 psi).
  • Cylinder valves are the opposite (female on the valve, male on the reducer fitting) but all are common—i.e., a Deutsches Institut fur Normung/German Standardisation Institute (DIN) 447A (for 200 bar/3,000 psi units) and DIN 447B (for 300 bar/4,500 psi units). They differ only in that the 300-bar unit has around five extra threads, making a 300-bar cylinder unusable on a 200-bar designed set, for safety purposes. To be honest again, all sets are designed to take both the 200- or 300-bar cylinder these days.
  • Virtually all manufacturers’ cylinder valves are different so that, for example, a Scott cylinder sometimes may not fit a Draeger SCBA. (A standard for a universal valve is being explored currently.)
  • A lot of valve wheels point downward, not to the right. This is termed a Euro-style valve. As stated above, a standard for a universal valve is being explored currently.
  • No secondary pressure gauge is fitted on the cylinder valve.
  • There is no standard requirement for a secondary warning alarm. The low-pressure warning whistle or electronic unit alarm is all that’s required; however, newer types will have both.
  • Chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear valves are not required in face masks in Europe.
  • The most popular rated durations are 46- and 60-minute (1,840- and 2,400-liter, respectively) cylinders.
  • All are required to have a second mask connection for emergency purposes.
  • Although in theory a fire brigade can purchase any EN 137-certificated SCBA, four manufacturers are on a United Kingdom (UK)-wide purchase list: MSA, Draeger, Scott, and Interspiro.

What we end up with is a slightly lighter (because of fewer component parts), snag-resistant, reliable unit that, if maintenance is carried out to specifications, more than adequately protects the wearer.


Ever since a fatal incident in 1958 in which two firefighters from Clerkenwell Fire Station, London—Station Officer Jack Fort-Wells and Firefighter Richard Daniel Stocking—lost their lives at the Smithfield Market fire in London after running out of oxygen (yes, in those days, most SCBA were oxygen sets here), we now have common features on every UK and Irish firefighter’s SCBA, regardless of city, county, or SCBA manufacturer. Home Office Technical Bulletin (HOTB) 1-97 specifies the following “Must Haves”:

  • The automatic distress signal unit (ADSU), or PASS device.
  • A “tally” or accountability tag.
  • A personal line.
  • An intrinsically safe torch/flashlight.
  • The ADSU, or PASS device, is a requirement also in very close conjunction with an accountability system, whether nonintegrated PASS devices like the Diktron DSX Mk11, ALLEY II, or the now more common integrated units such as MSA’s ICM TxR/AlphaSCOUT, Draeger’s Bodyguard/Sentinel, or Scott’s IRIS.

(4) Scott Regulators: Compare the size and profile of the regular U.S. Scott set and Europe’s Scott “Tempest” demand valve. It still has automatic first breath positive pressure and a true bypass. (Photos by author.)

(5) Scott Propak, Helmet On: Note the “dog leash” retractable personal line, ADSU/PASS with “tally,” and torch—all add weight. The helmet is the Cromwell F600, a very popular choice in the UK.

(6) Scott Propak, Helmet Off: With the jewel in the crown mask, the Vision 3, this gives good comfort along with perfect optical vision. The “Tempest” demand valve is a small, slim device mounted at the left of the mask, cutting down the profile and making it snag resistant.

Warning: With the integrated PASS/ADSU devices getting far more complex, and some complete with telemetry back to the donning/fresh air point, take care in difficult locations such as underground parking garages, subway stations, and so on, where the signal may be easily lost. As far as I’m aware, only the MSA Alpha SCOUT/ICM TxR telemetry system bounces its transmissions from unit to unit, team to team, therefore extending the range and helping greatly with this problem.


When turned on, the PASS unit releases the turn-on key; attached to this is a tally.

Before the SCBA wearers can venture from the fresh-air donning point, they must hand the tally and key to a breathing apparatus entry control officer (BAECO), who fills in the wearer’s name, the cylinder pressure, and the time.

(7) The breathing apparatus control officer updating the tally board. He communicates with the crews inside and will have a standby team with him as soon as practical. The fire appliance is a standard size 5 crew unit with rear pump. The hosereel is coming out of the righthand-side locker. The reel, a feature of every fire appliance, is put to great use at vehicle or small structure fires. (Photos by author.)

When the BAECO enters the tally into the control board, if it’s an automated system, it works it out for him; however, a manual system is more common. Using a simple air consumption-to-time table, the BAECO marks down the approximate time that the SCBA wearer’s low-pressure warning whistle will activate. These figures are based on a use/breathing rate of 40 liter/minute, although one brigade here is using a more realistic 60-liter/minute consumption average.

The control board operator will enter also a rough indication of the wearer’s area of operation and task.

(8) The Breathing Air Control Board speaks for itself with all the information at hand. The yellow “tally” is stored on the PASS unit. Note the circular duration calculator at top right.

The essential information that the control board provides includes the following:

  • The SCBA wearer’s name and SCBA number.
  • The time of entry.
  • The pressure on entry.
  • The approximate return time/warning whistle activation time.
  • The approximate location and task.

If the two-person crew does not return by the theoretical recorded time and communications have broken down, a backup (rapid intervention) team (RIT) would be sent to determine the reason. An “SCBA Emergency” constitutes either the alarming of a PASS device; the activation of a low-pressure warning whistle; or, obviously, the crew’s calling for assistance.

Constant monitoring of the gauge (termed “Correct Wear Planning Procedure”), which ensures that the wearer returns to the entry point before the low-pressure warning whistle sounds, has virtually eliminated instances of activation of the low-pressure warning whistle. If a whistle sounds, generally it’s regarded as a genuine SCBA emergency.

Although it may sound complex and time consuming, this entry procedure can easily be done in 25 seconds with standard training and practice. Some complex formulas can be memorized to work out the “turnaround point” while wearing SCBA, but really all that is required is a constant reading of the pressure gauge.

A simple “Stage 1” procedure is applicable in the majority of cases here, cases where it is unlikely that the wearing of SCBA will be protracted, no more than two entry points are used, and no more than 10 SCBA wearers will be operating. Outside of these parameters, a more complex “Stage 2” procedure applies. In this procedure, it is required that a fully equipped emergency team be immediately present at the entry point among other extra items, a larger control board, and a senior officer to begin.


If the route to be taken has poor visibility or is flooded and hoselines may be obscured by the water, the officer in charge (OIC) can dictate the use of a 50-meter (m) (150-foot) guideline, mounted on the side of the SCBA; the team from the entry control point will lead in with it to their destination. The firefighters, then, can simply follow the line back to the fresh air point. This 50-m (about 150-foot) line has guiding devices every 2.5 m (about 7½ feet) to tell the users the direction back to fresh air if they should lose their orientation. Several lines may be linked together.

So that wearers do not lose contact with each other or the main guideline, each SCBA has a “Personal Line” secured to it—first, a 1.5-m (about 4.9-foot) line to secure to your colleague or the main guideline and then a further extension taking it to 4.5 m (about 13.5 feet) to enable a larger search pattern to be established without losing the security factor. The most modern and common type of personal line is a self-retracting “dog-leash” style.

These measures sound ideal, but in practice the guidelines can very easily become a hindrance to crews, who can hook up to static objects or may have to deal with an entangled leash. Hence, these options are used at the discretion of the OIC. In practical terms, crews tend to use the hoseline as their guide.

Of course with the additions of the ADSU/PASS device, second mask attachment, personal line, and torch, the weight of the SCBA goes up by 2 kg (4.41 pounds) or so, which is worth it for safety’s sake.

After a serious house fire in South Wales in 1996 that killed two firefighters, every firefighter in the country, retained (part-time) or career, has to undergo simulation training in backdraft and flashover in training containers. For career firefighters, this is just part of the two-week SCBA training of the 15-week initial training for the service. Retained firefighters will get two or three days of SCBA training within their two-week basic training, which, obviously, is then complemented with routine training.

Retained firefighters here, although having primary occupations and being volunteers, are paid for training, standby time, and emergency calls.


Although this takes a slightly different format again, the essential features are the same: to have a standby rescue team at the point of entry that can respond at a moment’s notice to an SCBA emergency.

HOTB 1-97 and TB 1/89 (the national guidelines for using breathing apparatus) state that as soon as a fire team is deployed, a second, standby emergency team shall be available at the entry control point as soon as possible. This could mean, however, that in some remote locations here, if a single pumping appliance has arrived, its rapid intervention team could still be 10 minutes away; the team would be deployed prior to an immediate rescue team’s being available, an acceptable practice only if life is at risk and it is thought that an SCBA crew can perform a rescue.

The RIT will not be specifically equipped with any immediate special equipment other than a thermal imaging camera and an oxygen resuscitator. No rotary saws, no halligan tools, no nothing! Yes, team members will be on the appliance but not “immediately ready.” As far as I am aware, only one brigade here uses a RIT bag-type SCBA pack.


We’re not without our firefighter fatalities here. In the past two years, two firefighters were caught in a blast in a fireworks factory, and another four firefighters were killed in a structure collapse in a large warehouse complex where persons had been reported missing; however, fortunately, we don’t get firefighters running out of air unless they’re trapped in a structural collapse.

Even here, you see, there is room for improvement, within RIT equipment certainly; but the accountability procedures are second to none and are used on every occasion that SCBA are used. Our total firefighter fatality figures are, unfortunately, on the increase. According to the Fire Brigades Union, we have had 22 deaths on duty since 2003 and eight deaths in 2007, the highest figure since 1985.


The above safety procedures and guidance can only be fully implemented with thorough and constant realistic training in proper air management and accountability procedures for every firefighter. Fire Engineering’s Editor in Chief Bobby Halton raised the following question in “Parachutes in Helicopters” (Editor’s Opinion, January 2008): “Should we carry a parachute with us for ‘when the SCBA runs out of air’ … since ‘there are no parachutes in helicopters’?” We don’t have “parachutes in helicopters” here, either; but I, for one, think maybe we should be considering something else. If all else fails, even after we’ve put all of that hard training into operation in a bad situation, we can never have too much backup.

So there you have my simplified view of our procedures and equipment. I’m not saying that the system is perfect, but it has stood the test of time and generally works well, protecting the firefighters through accountability.

BRIAN ROBINSON is an SCBA and rescue consultant and trains companies and services in rapid intervention training, confined space rescue, self-survival, and mine rescue. In 1998, he compiled the largest independent review and testing of 12 SCBAs from Europe and the United States.

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