Updating SCBA The Phoenix Way

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.

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.

Low Or High Pressure?

Phoenix has a low-pressure system for most of its SCBA, with the cascade systems/compressors at 5,000 psi. When a firefighter goes to an air truck to refill a cylinder, he or she doesn't have to take it off the back; it is simply a quick charge. Two or three firefighters at a time can plug in and refill in 45 seconds, with no waiting.

Low-pressure cylinders are rated at 30 minutes but, according to Roche, no one lasts 30 minutes using an SCBA.

"We opted to give our firefighters 33 percent more air," said Roche. "They went from 45 to 60 cubic feet with our new SCBA. We've told them if the SCBA lasted 15 minutes before, chances are they'll get 20 minutes now. By going to 3,000 psi, we got them more air and, therefore, more time."

The SCBA selected for use by the Phoenix Hazmat and Technical Rescue teams will be high pressure. The normal cylinders will be rated at 45 minutes and have the capability to accept a larger unit, 88 cubic feet, rated at 60 minutes for extended operations. The SCBA assigned to those units will be able to draw air from an air line, so in a confined space situation they will have the option of tapping into a remote source of air using an air line.

The Evaluation Process

After the specifications were established and the Request For Proposals (RFP) issued, only two SCBA manufacturers submitted final proposals. There were three parts to the evaluation process, with 100 points total to be awarded: proposal responsiveness, 10 points; price, 20 points; and physical evaluation, 70 points.

Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Fire Department
The new SCBA underwent extensive testing by firefighters in the field.

Ten points were awarded for proposal responsiveness, required by the city's Purchasing Department. This assessed how well the manufacturer put together the proposal package, how readable the proposal was and how the information was presented in the bid. Each manufacturer received full points for proposal responsiveness.

The second part was 20 points for price. Before bids were opened, the committee established a formula to insure a fair price. Lowest bid was not the only criteria for the firefighters' life-support system. In order to avoid a "lowball" bid on the SCBA and higher-priced replacement parts, a group of parts extra facepieces, extra shoulder straps, cylinders and parts to change from low to high pressure were included. When the numbers were calculated, it was obvious how the points fell.

The last 70 points were for the physical evaluation. The committee issued a letter requesting 30 evaluators to help in the physical evaluation 150 Phoenix firefighters responded. Thirty firefighters were selected to represent a cross section of the Phoenix Fire Department: young and old, male and female, from every battalion and each shift.

On their off days last December, the firefighters went to the training academy. They spent one day with each manufacturer. Mornings were spent in a classroom with the SCBA representative, learning about the equipment, the company's history and its engineering efforts. The evaluators donned the SCBA and became familiar with it. After lunch, each firefighter in SCBA gear performed in an extensive simulated firefighting course. Afterward, each participant completed an evaluation form about the SCBA they wore. The participants took the effort seriously, realizing they were making a decision that the department would probably live with for 15 or 20 years, like the previous SCBA.

The physical evaluation ran concurrently and not as a timed event. It was a rigorous course designed for the participants to experience the SCBA in routine functions, simulate a working fire, and forcing them to breathe hard to see if the breathing apparatus could keep up. The forms were totaled 25 out of 30 were in agreement and the physical evaluation constituted 70 percent of the final SCBA grade. After totaling the three parts of the evaluation process, Phoenix awarded a contract to the local dealership for Scott Air-Pak.

Strengths & Weaknesses

According to both co-chairmen of the committee, the strength of this three year study and evaluation process was the excellent support from management.

Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Fire Department
Thirty firefighters participated in the physical evaluation of the new SCBA.

"Chief Brunacini and (Deputy Chief) Hoot Gibson pointed us in the direction and let us go," Roche said. "We ran it as a labor-management committee and have an excellent relationship. It would seem silly for staff to buy this equipment for the field (firefighters) without their input they keep us realistic. You can add on a million things to an SCBA, but if a firefighter isn't going to use it, you're making the firefighter carry the weight around forever."

Tobin added, "I credit Fire Chief Alan Brunacini and the Firefighters Union president, Pat Cantelme. The leadership at those levels foster the relationship of wanting to work together. The labor-management process works if you take managers and people who are in the field and bring them together. Everybody uses their strengths to aid the process; the administrators administrate and the firefighters keep things realistic with how it's going to work. It's an incredibly strong process."

Roche and Tobin agreed that the response from 150 people to participate in the evaluation shows a high level of interest in new ideas and openness to trying new equipment.

Besides the classroom training on the new SCBA, a training video on the new breathing apparatus is being developed using Phoenix firefighters. The video will go back to the fire stations for individual study. The committee believes it's important that Phoenix firefighters are used in the video, not somebody in a lab coat.

Among the specifications, the manufacturers were told that not only did they have to integrate their PASS units, they had to develop technology to eliminate false alarms, one reason why firefighters won't turn them on today. Both of the competing manufacturers made great strides in their integrated PASS device technology.

"We felt that we drove the industry instead of the industry driving the fire service," said Tobin.

The Phoenix Fire Department has mutual aid agreements with 10 neighboring fire departments. Since a couple of the departments are also looking to update SCBA, Phoenix included in the specification that the company whose bid was accepted also would hold its prices for the mutual aid departments. Scott has agreed to extend the prices to neighboring departments with mutual aid agreements.

If there was a weakness in the process, Roche suggested that they should have started budgeting the money earlier.

"We did have to wait awhile longer, but we kept in contact with all the manufacturers," he said. "They all had the same opportunities to meet with us and ask questions. So right from the start there was an effort for an impartial purchase decision. The committee that worked on this project for three years had two votes out of 30 on what we would buy. I was glad, because the two samples we had tested were both very good."

Physical Evaluation Of SCBA

Thirty Phoenix firefighters performed the physical valuation of the new SCBA over a two-day period. This was not a timed event, but an evaluation process designed to recreate routine procedures of Phoenix firefighters wearing SCBA.

  1. Teams of three.
  2. Start out in the cab of the truck with protective clothing on.
  3. Dismount truck, don the SCBA.
  4. Each member carries a high-rise pack to the third floor. Drop in on the third floor landing, take 1 1/2-inch line from the landing into burn room.
  5. Pause for a few minutes in the heat (if possible). Open window if needed to stay in the room.
  6. If not open already, open window.
  7. Flow water out of the window and remove hoseline to the landing leave it there.
  8. Proceed to the second floor.
  9. Search for the dummy.
  10. When found, bring the dummy outside.
  11. Transfill or buddy breathe the dummy.
  12. Proceed to the south non-burn building, gather ladder tools and climb the aerial ladder to the roof.
  13. Use the saw to cut a hole in the cutout panel in the roof.
  14. Proceed to the grinder and perform three events (ceiling pull, ladder raise, attic crawl). Pause between events to allow PASS device to go into pre-alert and alarm (reset).
  15. Refill SCBA and return it to the pumper.

After the first group has left the building with the dummy, the next group starts. Continue until all are through.

Janet Wilmoth is a freelance writer with an interest in the fire service.