Updating SCBA The Phoenix Way

Janet Wilmoth outlines the procedures followed by the Phoenix, AZ, Fire Department to update and replace its inventory of self-contained breathing apparatus.


Nothing is more critical to a firefighter in a burning building than the air he or she breathes. With that in mind, the Phoenix, AZ, Fire Department began a quest in 1992 to update and replace the department's 15-year-old self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). A committee made up of labor and...


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Nothing is more critical to a firefighter in a burning building than the air he or she breathes. With that in mind, the Phoenix, AZ, Fire Department began a quest in 1992 to update and replace the department's 15-year-old self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). A committee made up of labor and management worked with SCBA manufacturers for three years to research, develop and evaluate new SCBA. Their efforts, coupled with extensive in-house testing, will soon result in the complete replacement of 566 SCBA by the Phoenix Fire Department. (The department protects over 1 million people in a 469-square-mile area with 1,118 career firefighters operating out of 45 fire stations.)

In 1992, Phoenix Chief Alan Brunacini attended the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) show in Anaheim, CA, and observed many technological advances in SCBA. On his return, he asked Fire Protection Engineer Kevin Roche to investigate the advantages of updating the department's SCBA.

Pat Cantelme, president of the Firefighters Union, suggested Captain Brian Tobin, union vice president, co-chair the committee with Roche. The six-member committee was comprised of three each from management and labor: co-chairmen Roche and Tobin; Deputy Chief Cassie Peters, the department safety officer; Captain Mark Godfrey, respiratory program captain; and Firefighters Don Llona and Steve Beuerlein, both union officers.

"Phoenix has the best-known labor-management process that I'm familiar with," said Tobin. "We have a philosophy of everything being a 'joint venture' whenever possible and there is very little that is not possible to be run with a labor-management process."

The Guidelines

After an initial brainstorming session to develop a list of basic needs for new breathing apparatus, the list was sent to all SCBA manufacturers to solicit interest in the project. The goal was to have only one type of SCBA throughout the department.

5_96_scba1.jpg
Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Fire Department
A Phoenix firefighter refills one of the new SCBA from an air truck.

"I believe strongly that you should have one type of SCBA in your department at one time," said Roche. "Departments that have multiple types of SCBA, in my opinion, lay themselves and the firefighters out for more risk than they should be taking. When things go badly, studies have shown that firefighters go back to their training. I don't want that firefighter wondering (what type of SCBA he is wearing). If he has to buddy-breathe, or transfill, or ask 'Where's the bypass?' I don't want him to wonder about that. I want him to know because there's only one type in the whole department."

The committee researched the market and investigated the needs of the firefighters. They worked closely with manufacturers to produce the right SCBA specifications for Phoenix. While the study took three years, the length was primarily due to the wait for funding.

"To afford this type of purchase $1.5 million, it's big money no matter where you go we had to wait and split it between two years," explained Roche. "We also asked the SCBA manufacturers to make some advances in technology that required a lot of engineering, research and development. It also required changing the NFPA Standard and testing through NIOSH. It took longer than we thought it would, but the manufacturers were always working on something for us."

Among the factors that the committee considered was the weight of SCBA and firefighter fatigue. The new SCBA weighs about one pound more than the older models, but incorporates extra air. While air doesn't weigh much, the cylinder needs to be "beefier" to accommodate more air. In addition, integrated personal alert safety system (PASS) devices, buddy-breathing and other accessories add ounces. The Phoenix firefighters participating in the physical evaluation, however, said the weight was so well distributed on both of the SCBA tested that there was no noticeable difference.

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