In 2001, the U.S. Fire Administration documented the need to improve firefighter’s self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and facepiece design in order to withstand various extreme conditions, such as high heat loads. In the years following, reports on firefighter deaths have indicated that insufficient thermal performance of SCBA lenses was a factor in several of these fatalities. However, the lack of information available in regards to the performance of SCBA lenses has hindered efforts to match the corresponding standard requirements to actual firefighting conditions. Firefighters are exposed to highly variable conditions which can be affected by many factors including fuel type and load, interior finish, ventilation, and structure layout.

A recent study aimed to improve the standards of personal protection equipment was conducted by the National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST) and sponsored by the U.S. Fire Administration. The study utilized realistic fire scenarios to further explore the correlation between equipment criteria and firefighting conditions. While manufacturers must submit their products for certification testing, according to NIST, the certification testing does not effectively capture actual conditions a firefighter might experience, such as temperature, heat flux, or duration.

Through their recent research, NIST is working to change that. Five types of SCBA facepieces from different manufacturers were tested using various real-life scenarios. NIST found that temperature and heat-flow conditions were shown to damage the lenses of the equipment. In two of the tests, the lenses bubbled, were severely deformed, and in one case, a hole developed. Respiratory protection, such as SCBA equipment, is an essential component of a firefighter’s personal protective equipment. When a firefighter’s lens fails, he or she can be exposed to toxic gases that could result in respiratory tract burns and asphyxiation.

While much was learned through the study, NIST indicated in that “more experiments are needed to understand the thermal degradation and more definitely predict the conditions that are likely to cause a facepiece lens failure”. If you would like to read the full report, please click here.