Respiratory Protection New York Firemenn

Respiratory Protection New York Firemenn

Research, development and training employed to make fire fighting a safer profession

FIRE FIGHTING has sometimes been considered a defensive service; one which waits for something to happen before springing into action. One visit to the New York City Fire Department Fire College will change anyone’s mind about this. A continuing, directed, and active fight is being carried on, day in and day out, to learn more about the causes of fire and to recommend steps to prevent them. At the same time the fire college is continually studying ways and means of making fire fighting safer for those men who have selected it as their life work. It is this phase with which we will concern ourselves.

The writer was discussing fire fighting with a typical smoke-eating deputy chief in a large city one day. During the course of the conversation he asked the officer why the department did not institute a respiratory safety program (they had a particularly bad record for smoke-inhalation cases). “Hell,” the deputy chief replied, “fire fighting isn’t a safe business and we don’t want these guys to be thinking about their own safety. Wo want them to get in there and knock the fire down. There’s no place for a safety program in our department.”

To say that New York has come a long way from such a horse-drawn point of view is a gross understatement. It has created a division of the fire college known as the “Safety and Research Laboratory.” In addition, continual training is carried on in the use of respiratory protective equipment. These are but two facets of a program designed to make fire fighting safer, as well as more effective. This makes sense, doesn’t it? How can a man fight a fire effectively when he has been exposed to dust, smoke or fumes which may nauseate him, render him unconscious, or even cause his death?

Back pressure, arm lift resuscitation is demonstrated to Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr. Fresh air is supplied from operator's mask to victim's mask. Air line attached to department's mask service truck supplies needs of both men

All photos FDNY Photo Unit

Respiratory protection program

More firemen are put out of action every day by inhalation of smoke and gases than by any other cause. Statistics will no doubt bear out that the largest number of fatalities in fire departments are due to respiratory emergencies. Is it any wonder then that New York is devoting so much time and effort to its offensive against this hazard to fire fighters? They have set up a three-pronged attack to fight this problem. It involves: (1) Research; (2) development; (3) education and training

Each one of these is of equal importance and they are interdependent. If a fireman is to be given the most complete protection possible against inhalational hazards, it is necessary to know the nature of these hazards through research. The efficiency of respiratory protective

devices must be determined to guard against these hazards. If deficiencies are found in existing devices, it is essential to develop newer and better means of protecting the respiratory organs of the men who fight fires. After the research and development stages, it is then imperative to get the information into the department. This is where education and training come into the picture. It should he apparent to the reader that this cannot be a static program.


In 1956 Fire Commissioner Edward F. Cavanagh, Jr., directed that the Safety and Research Laboratory be set up. Facilities were provided at Grand and F. D. R. Drive, and a deputy chief placed in charge. Also selected was a staff of officers and men already versed in respiratory equipment. The laboratory was moved to the Fire College building in Long Island City in 1958.

One cannot visit this laboratory without being impressed by the zeal with which these men work. Unwilling to accept supposition or advertised claims about performance, they set out to determine exactly how a respiratory protective device works under fire fighting conditions. They knew, as do many fire department officers, that men often resist wearing masks. They also knew that in spite of wearing masks some men under certain conditions were knocked out. They knew that some masks were approved for certain gases under certain conditions, but firemen were overcome while wearing them. These men wanted to know why!

In many instances there was not an instrument or mechanical device to simulate human use of masks. Efficient means might not be available to give accurate data in the tests performed. This did not daunt the men at Research and Safety. They made the equipment. And they got results which outmoded much of the data previously published and relied upon.

One problem which faced the researchers was how to measure the negative pressure or suction necessary to get air from the valve in a demand mask. The manufacturers’ claims and data from the approving agency didn’t jibe with the fact that men complained of extreme efforts necessary to actuate these valves. A “breathing machine” was constructed which not only provided accurate control of opening suctions, but also increased its demands for air as its work increased —just as does the human body. From the findings provided by this work, new criteria were established for testing demand valves.

Next to come tinder scrutiny was the so-called “breathing air” furnished in demand-mask cylinders. This was found to have various contaminants which might endanger a fireman using this type mask. An ingenious, but complicated compressing unit was engineered which would provide air as safe and pure as is humanly possible to produce.

A completely new air compressing system which removes all moisture ond contaminants is pictured above with its designer, Captain James Ferguson, Safety and Research Laboratory. All New York’s demand mask cylinders are filled by this deviceA new exhalation valve, patented by Captain Ferguson and developed at the Safety and Research Laboratory, prevents moisture from going from the mask to the canister in filter-type gas masksThe nearest thing to human breathing can be reproduced by this unique testing instrument, developed and used at the New York City Fire College. It is employed for testing demand masks


Many persons in industry feel that research without development is sterile. They would be delighted to see the developments which have resulted from the research conducted by the Safety and Research Laboratory.

We have already briefly mentioned the development of the air compressing unit for producing pure breathing air. This has been designed to take the guesswork out of what is in the cylinder which the fireman carries on his back when wearing a demand mask. The painstaking care employed to remove contaminants all of the way along the line has resulted in a very unique compressor.

The evolution of the air pump pointed up another need. At a large fire being fought by dozens of firemen, how to supply sufficient air cylinders becomes quite a problem. The unit tackled this— again starting from scratch. They developed a special apparatus from the chassis up. The body houses two cascade systems made up of several 300-cubic-foot cylinders. Take-offs are provided, so that more than one cylinder can be filled at a time. Storage racks for cylinders and repair equipment are also provided. The roof is fusible in case of a cylinder letting go. It will release and blow out without involving the rest of the vehicle. An examination of this truck will convince anyone of the vast amount of thought and care which went into its planning and development.

The all-purpose filter mask had been under fire for some time, because of its tendency to pick up moisture and increase breathing resistance. Accurate data on how much moisture was allowable could not be obtained. Designed many years ago, the smoke mask was not constructed to be worn in water fog now prevalently used in fire fighting. The mask, under certain conditions, actually became more of a menace than a protection. The men at Research and Safety Laboratory set out to get at the bottom of the matter.

Patented valve

Of interest is the positive check valve for the facepiece of an all-purpose mask. This was designed to prevent condensation occurring in the facepiece from passing into the canister and thus compounding the moisture problem. By using the valve developed at the Laboratory it is practically impossible to communicate any water from facepiece to canister. This was a decided step forward in bringing the all purpose mask up to date.

The above are only a few of the developments to come out of the Laboratory to date. When one considers what a short time the Safety and Research Laboratory has been in operation, it is remarkable how much progress has been made toward the solution of several of the problems peculiar to the fire service.

Approval of masks has always been vested in the United States Bureau of Mines. The fire fighter faces different situations than those confronting mine rescue squads. Extreme changes in temperature are to be expected by the fireman in the winter in many areas. This presents problems of fogging and condensation in valves not normal to the mine rescue worker who usually operates in fairly even temperature. Problems of fresh air supply, etc., are also different. It can be seen, therefore, that research and development by firemen for firemen is most essential.

Education and training

We mentioned at the outset that the New York Fire Department employs a three-pronged attack in its offensive against respiratory emergencies. The third, and by no means the least, of these is education and training.

Before the writer’s first visit to the New York City Fire College, he was convinced that he would find a training school steeped in tradition, one set in its ways, and sure that these ways were right. A rude awakening was awaiting him. Deputy Chief Alfred P. Mendy, then in charge of the fire college*, made the writer welcome and a discussion immediately ensued about the proposed adoption of the mouth-to-mouth method of resuscitation by the department. This was so new at the time that many persons close to the field were not even aware of the proposed technique. While there, a film was shown to the Fire College staff, depicting this technique. This had been made, at Baltimore, Md., City Hospital by Drs. James Elam and P. Safer. A very lively discussion followed the showing of the picture and the pros and cons of this recommended technique were discussed.

After this matter was talked about at some length, Chief Mendy asked to be excused so that he could attend a meeting at city hall to discuss this method of artificial respiration. It was to include Dr. Elam, medical officers of the city, and top officials of the fire department. This introduction to educational center of the department removed any “steeped in tradition” ideas from the writer’s mind.

* (now Deputy Chief James T. Ward)

The fire college carries on a continuing program of teaching and reviewing all of the skills and techniques of fire fighting, rescue, and fire prevention. All the way from the raw recruits to the most venerable officers, the men must be schooled to learn a whole new set of skills or review knowledge already gained, or participate as newer techniques are developed. The job of training and reviewing 10,000 firemen and 2,400 officers is a year-round proposition which consumes the full time of a staff of six men.

Proficiency in the use of protective breathing equipment is of vital concern to the fire college. Let’s face it. Very few people like to be encumbered by a mask. When men are taught to realize, however, that their life may depend on the wearing of this equipment, they will usually go along. It takes a lot of training and a lot of practice to insure that putting on a mask will become almost as natural as putting on hunkers or a helmet.

A new era

With the passing of the “smoke eater” philosophy, teaching mask techniques is somewhat easier. The modern fireman realizes that “eating smoke” is not heroic, it is really very stupid and most likely will harm his respiratory organs and heart. Much of the credit for this change in attitude of New York fire fighters is attributable to the work of men from the fire college who continually drum away at the dangers of smoke inhalation and the necessity of protective breathing equipment.

The “rookie” fireman is indoctrinated in use of masks during his rigorous training in the fire college and is then put through the smoke chamber at Welfare Island. He is first introduced to the dangers of smoke without mask and then is required to enter the chamber properly protected where he works for a specified time under smoke conditions. When he arrives at his permanent assignment, his mask is as much a part of his equipment as boots or bunkers, spanner wrench, helmet and coat. This is the state of mind for which all training officers strive—the natural attitude of the fireman toward his respiratory equipment.


We have spoken of the New York Fire Department’s three-pronged attack to fight the hazards of smoke inhalation. Plans for the near-future call for the addition of 450 more masks for the protection of the men and for more research toward development of a mask which would operate most favorably under varying conditions.

As one officer aptly put it, “our goal is to cut the number of cases of smoke inhalation to an irreducible minimum.” This will require tireless efforts and tme dedication of all those responsible.

Mouth-to-mouth technique of resuscitation is demonstrated by those responsible for its development. Chief of Department George David (at left) and Chief Mendy, Fire College, look on with Dr. James Elam (second from left) as the technique is demonstrated by Captain McMahon of the Baltimore Fire Department

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