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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Station Life: The Self Contained Breathing Apparatus

This week’s Station Life focuses on an important piece of firefighting equipment: the SCBA, sometimes also known as an airpack.

A firefighter’s SCBA, or Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, is somewhat similar to the SCUBA tank system that divers use. It is composed of shoulder and waist straps as well as a pressurized bottle of air and gauges to let the firefighter know how much air remains in the bottle. It is often mistakenly believed that a firefighter’s airpack contains pure oxygen, but the bottle is really only full of compressed ambient air, just like what you are breathing right now.

Firefighters rely on their SCBA to protect their lungs when working inside a burning building, at a car fire, or when dealing with a potentially hazardous material. The airpack has a hose and a regulator that connect to the face mask firefighters wear. The air flowing into the mask is only delivered under two circumstances; if the firefighter takes a breath or if the mask becomes dislodged.
The reason that air flows if the mask becomes dislodged is so that it won’t be full of smoke when the firefighter puts it back in place. Brentwood Fire and Rescue also equips its firefighters with voice amplifiers, which clip onto the mask and make it easier for them to communicate. A voice amp can be seen attached to the right side of the mask in the photo above. While these devices make it easier for firefighters to hear each other, they sometimes give the firefighter a robotic or ‘Darth Vader’ sounding voice. It is important for children to understand that although a firefighter in full gear may look and sound scary, they must never try to hide if they are in danger. Firefighters take every opportunity to demonstrate their gear to kids to help them understand this and take away some of their fear.

The device shown above is known as a P.A.S.S. device or alarm. These turn on automatically when the bottle on the SCBA is turned on. If a firefighter becomes disoriented or trapped, they can activate a very loud alarm to help other firefighters find them. Additionally, if a firefighter stops moving, the alarm will automatically activate. If you have ever watched footage from September 11, 2001 and noticed what sounds like numerous odd sounding car alarms going off in the background what you are probably hearing are activated P.A.S.S. devices.

This device is attached to one of the shoulder straps on an SCBA. It shows the firefighter how much air remains in the current bottle and allows them to activate or silence the P.A.S.S. device. An example of how this works and what a P.A.S.S. device sounds like can be viewed here:

Click the video above to hear a P.A.S.S. alarm
Each bottle also has a gauge built into it. This way firefighters can verify that they have a full bottle at the beginning of their shift before they respond to any emergencies. Spare full bottles can be quickly swapped out for empties, allowing the firefighter to get back to work.
Special brackets are built into the seats on fire apparatus. These brackets secure the airpacks for storage and transport while also allowing firefighters to don their pack while enroute to an emergency without having to remove their seatbelts. Once a firefighter arrives on scene, they can unbuckle and step off the truck ready to go.
So there you have it. Firefighters rely on their SCBA to keep them safe in all sorts of dangerous situations. Just remember, no matter what they look like, it’s still one of your friendly Brentwood Firefighters behind the mask!