Prevention of Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus Failures

Technical BulletinLast updated Friday, November 30, 2001
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Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) are one of the most important items of personal protective equipment used by firefighters and rescue personnel.  SCBA allow firefighters to enter hazardous environments to perform essential interior operations including offensive fire attack, victim search, rescue and removal, ventilation, and overhaul.  They are also used at non-fire incidents involving hazardous materials and confined spaces where there is a threat of toxic fumes or an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.

There have been several well-documented incidents during the past 10 years where SCBA failure may have been a contributing factor in the deaths or injuries of firefighters¹.  These incidents, coupled with a recognition of the importance of self-contained breathing apparatus to firefighter safety, prompted the United States Fire Administration to undertake this study to address any operations trends associated with SCBA failure incidents, and to identify potential problems requiring correction or further study.

Catastrophic failures of SCBA are characterized by the sudden and unexpected failure of any component that would subsequently expose the user to a hazardous environment, or introduce a major complication hindering the ability to escape from the environment.  Failures of this nature are relatively uncommon occurrences, especially considering the very large number of route uses of SCBA by firefighters and rescue personnel each day.  Although catastrophic failures of SCBA are rare, the evidence suggests that “low-order” failures of SCBA are more common.  Examples of low-order failures include free-flowing or improperly connected regulators, improperly tightened or connected hoses, inadequate face-to-facepiece seal resulting in air leakage, or blown O-rings during cylinder changes.  These problems are often attributable to operator error or inadequate preventive maintenance.  Although these failures may not directly result in firefighter death or injury, they are a concern because they may reduce efficiency or hamper the coordination required for safe and successful operations.  For example, a low-order failure may result in delayed ventilation by a truck crew, thus slowing the advance of the engine company which is attacking the fire.

Standards and testing procedures have been changed over time to address problems which led to failures and to ensure that SCBA are more durable and reliable.  Nonetheless, firefighters must realize that catastrophic failures of SCBA are still possible.  There are limits to the physical and environmental punishment that SCBA can endure.  Regular inspection, upgrade, and preventive maintenance will lessen the potential for catastrophic failures of SCBA.  The report identifies a variety of issues and operational aspects of SCBA failures, particularly those related to maintenance and user training.  Suggestions for addressing these issues are included throughout the report.

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