Fire Fighting in Canada


SCBA: your most important piece of PPE

December 13, 2007 
By Jeff Weber

Just about a year ago I asked you to concern yourself with respiratory protection. I challenged you to make the protection of your respiratory tract a priority. There still seems to be a lot of banter and misinformation about what is expected by a department, a supervisor, and an employee to ensure that a respiratory program is successful. It seems like a good time to go back to that topic and once again renew our commitment to our most important piece of protective equipment. Let’s start to think about it in another way.

Do you remember in the 1987 classic movie “Full Metal Jacket” there was a scene when all the new green recruits recite the rifleman’s creed? This creed is an actual part of the average U.S. marine’s basic training. The beginning of it goes like this, and I quote: “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.” Well, we should be thinking the same way, but substitute in SCBA in the place of rifle. Kind of like this, “This is my breathing apparatus. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me my SCBA is useless. Without my SCBA, I am useless.” The creed continues on and SCBA fits in throughout with some other slight modifications to the actual creed. I’ll let you fit it to your operation.

The typical SCBA seems like a tough, robust example of firefighting equipment. After all, this is a piece of equipment that we take everywhere with us without hesitation. It goes into atmospheres that are near hell-like conditions and continues to provide us with safe, breathable air at slightly above atmospheric pressure. We come back out of that atmosphere and think nothing of doffing our SCBA and moving on with our life. We exit that atmosphere without a second thought of how the device just preserved our lives once again. That little wonder we call an SCBA is what makes it possible for us to even think of entering these furnace-like environments. Why do some of us continue to treat that mechanical marvel with such disregard?

The SCBA should be treated like it was a marine’s rifle. That piece of equipment was given to you so you could perform your job, just like the marine’s rifle. Hopefully, it was provided to you in a top-notch condition, clean and ready for duty, like the marine’s rifle. It would be repaired or replaced when required if you make it apparent that it needs repair, like the marine’s rifle. And just like the marine’s rifle it is expected that you will use and take care of that piece of equipment with the utmost regard to your own and your brother’s or sister’s safety. Without you and your SCBA,  your entire team suffers. Commit to the following.

1Check the SCBA and your facepiece religiously. Make sure you check the entire SCBA that is assigned to you. Take responsibility for it and any spares on your vehicle as well. Whatever your department’s procedure is for checking your SCBA, make sure you are comfortable with that as a minimum. Ensure you’re checking the SCBA more or better.

2Check the operation of your SCBA. Not just in the truck. Put it on and operate it. Check the safety systems, check the warning devices, and check all the components for damage.

3While doing your routine check, remove from service anything that is suspected of being damaged, or that you don’t think is functioning properly. Be tough in this corner. Don’t accept anything less than full compliance by your department. Make sure your department understands that you believe this to be your most important piece of protective equipment and the department should too.

4Don’t be afraid to get your SCBA wet. Wash it. Disinfect it. Departments should ensure that procedures for cleaning of the SCBA reflect the manufacturer’s requirements and that those procedures are adhered to. If your SCBA is used at a scene and is dirty it should be washed. Don’t expose yourself needlessly to potential contaminants on a dirty SCBA. Don’t let peer pressure expose you to needless contaminants either.

5Use your cleaning products the way they are intended. Departmental procedures should reflect the proper use of cleaning products. Read the label. Most cleaning chemicals are not intended to be a spray-on, wipe-off type of product. Sorry everyone, no leniency here. Don’t be lazy with this one. Clean your SCBA properly. You are only providing safety and     cleanliness to yourself. Cleaning products can leave a residue on an SCBA if they are not rinsed off. That residue can change or deteriorate the material that your facepiece is made of. Not only that, but every time you put on that SCBA you put on that residue. You may smell lemony fresh, but what are you needlessly exposing yourself to just because you looked for a shortcut to clean your SCBA? Read the label, and use the products the way they are intended to be used.

6Practice with your SCBA. Wear it, know how long it lasts when you breathe it down, run with it, or crawl with it. Make sure you know how that piece of equipment works when it is working its best.

7More importantly, know how your SCBA works when it fails. Learn all about your SCBA. Read the manufacturer’s recommendations. Find out how to operate that SCBA when it isn’t doing exactly what you expect it to do. Do you know what to do when there isn’t enough air for you to breathe? What if there is too much air for you to breathe? What do you do with your particular SCBA? There is a big training emphasis on firefighter survival lately and a big component of that is equipment, and especially SCBA, familiarity. Know how to use it when it counts the most.
8Treat all components of the respiratory protection program as equipment that is protecting your lungs. The cylinders, and compressors that provide your air deserve as much attention and as much care as your individual apparatus. Don’t forget them in your routine check of the station. Ensure they are functioning properly with proper cooling, air supply and filtering. If you don’t know how to do this, find out. There should be a departmental procedure or a manufacturer’s recommendation somewhere. If not someone should know how to take care of this device. If not, your joint health and safety committee should look into it for you.

These recommendations are not a new world order in the fire service. It is just a timely reminder that this rubber and metal lifesaver that you put on your back is the most important piece of safety equipment that is provided to you to do your job. It is provided with good intention by your department. Hopefully, when it is provided to you it is in perfect working condition. It is up to you to ensure that while that SCBA is in your care it is inspected and maintained using your department’s procedure. That while it is in your care it is cleaned properly after you use it in a manner that gives the next user a clean, disinfected SCBA. That you can expect a clean, disinfected SCBA the next time you use it. This final point becomes an opportunity to become the bigger man or woman. You need to walk the extra mile when it comes to caring for your personal protective equipment and the equipment of others. It is your responsibility. Don’t fail yourself.

Until next time…
Capt. Jeff Weber has been with the Kitchener (Ont.) Fire Dept. for 14 years and moved from the suppression division to training in 2003. He is an active member of Kitchener’s high/low angle rope rescue committee, water rescue committee, haz-mat committee and confined space committee. Weber holds a teacher/trainer of adults certificate from Conestoga College.

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