NFPA 1981 2013 Edition: What Do You Need to Know?

The publication of the 2013 edition of NFPA 1981 on self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) took place this week and three changes will take center stage with the new edition.


Without a doubt, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is the most important and widely used tool in the fire service today. Its use has greatly expanded the capacities of firefighters when performing fire attack and searches or hazmat and technical rescue operations while successfully reducing the number of firefighter fatalities and injuries related to inadequate respiratory protection.

Equipment of such importance warrants close scrutiny. How much change is necessary and to what extent will it help us as a fire service must be asked. NFPA 1981 is the Standard for Open Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus for Fire and Emergency Services. This standard has undergone several changes with the 1997, 2002 and 2007 editions that have had a significant impact on SCBA used by the fire service.

Most notable changes in this time period in the 1997 and 2002 revisions were requirements for redundant low pressure warning devices, heads up display (HUD) or a visual signal signifying the amount of an air cylinder's rated capacity present and the RIC Universal Air Coupling (RIC UAC). In the 2007 revision, focus was turned to the perceived weakest link of the SCBA; electronics. Stricter testing methods were passed to improve the performance and sustainability of electronic components of the SCBA. All of these changes were undoubtedly very important safety improvements.

The publication of the 2013 edition of NFPA 1981 took place this week. This standard is expected to be in full effect by August, which in essence means that any units manufactured after August 2013 must meet the requirements of the new edition for NFPA certification. Many of the new changes are operational related.

It can be stated that the following three changes will take center stage with the new edition of the standard:

  • testing for increased facepiece lens integrity
  • new voice communication intelligibility requirements 
  • changes to the end of service time indicator


Testing for Increased Face Piece Lens Integrity

No specific test has ever been defined for just the SCBA facepiece lens. The 2013 edition will define specific durability requirements for facepieces. Several firefighter fatalities in the past few years have brought attention to the integrity of SCBA. lenses being compromised under hostile conditions. Changes in today's fireground environment have necessitated this change - higher BTU release and shorter flashover windows have an increased detrimental effect on the traditional polycarbonate SCBA lenses worn by firefighters. These changes have caused the different coatings of these lenses to expand and contract at different rates causing crazing and eventual failure as well as total failure because of the softness in the lens brought on by high heat.

In the 2007 edition of the standard, complete SCBA. ensembles are required to pass specific testing parameters. The only facepiece requirement in this test is to maintain visual acuity and positive pressure after a five minute oven test at 200 degrees and a 10 second direct flame impingement test.

The 2013 NFPA revision will call for specific tests for the facepiece itself. A high heat and flame test which will utilize convected heat to test the SCBA after a five minute oven test at 500 degrees and 10 second direct flame impingement test both while maintaining a flow rate of 40 liters per minute (LPM), which is the estimated average breathing rate, according to NIOSH. There will be no requirements for visual acuity, but the SCBA must maintain positive pressure for a time period of 24 minutes.

A second test for the facepiece using radiant heat will also be utilized. While flowing 40 LPM the facepiece will be exposed to radiant heat at rate of 15 Kilowatts per square meter for a five minute interval. Again, positive pressure must be maintained for a period of 24 minutes afterward.

New Voice Communication Intelligibility Requirements

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