NFPA issues safety alert on SCBA facepiece lenses

Published on July 2, 2012

SCBA facepiece lenses may undergo thermal degradation when exposed to intense heat

July 2, 2012 -- The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) today issued a safety alert on Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) facepiece lenses. Among other things, NFPA is recommending that fire departments, fire academies, and emergency service organizations inspect all SCBA facepiece lenses before and after each use. Any SCBA facepiece lens found to have cracks, crazing, bubbling, deformation, discoloring, gaps or holes should be immediately removed from service and a replacement issued.

The alert comes after investigations and additional research found SCBA facepiece lenses may undergo thermal degradation when exposed to intense heat. The full alert and recommendations can be found at www.nfpa.org/scba.

“SCBA is a critical component in the personal protective equipment (PPE) used by today’s fire service. This equipment is essential for allowing firefighters to operate in hostile fire ground environments. However, in recent decades there have been significant changes in the environments encountered by structural firefighters and in how they operate in those environments,” said Kenneth Willette, division director of Public Fire Protection at NFPA. “The SCBA facepiece lens is generally based on polycarbonate. The SCBA facepiece lens is often considered the weakest component of a firefighter’s ensemble in high heat conditions, but the level of thermal performance of the facepiece lens has not been well understood."

During the investigation of firefighter fatalities that occurred from 2002 to 2011, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found evidence of thermal degradation of facepiece lenses that may have been a contributing factor in three fatalities. NIOSH also reported on the investigation of three SCBA from a state training academy where the SCBA facepiece lens showed evidence of thermal degradation after being used in live fire training.  Additionally, in four other NIOSH Line of Duty Death Investigations, the evidence, while not conclusive was suggestive of possible SCBA degradation or failure.

The concerns with facepiece lenses identified in the NIOSH investigations were brought to the attention of the NFPA Technical Committee on Respiratory Protection Equipment by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the NIOSH Division of Safety Research, Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program.

In addition, in 2010 NIST, NIOSH, the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) and NFPA jointly hosted a research planning workshop on evaluating and addressing the concerns regarding the thermal impact of SCBA facepiece lenses. With support and funding from the Department of Homeland Security and US Fire Administration, NIST studied the conditions that may be encountered by fire fighters and the effects of those conditions on SCBA facepiece lenses. Subsequently, NIST developed and provided new testing and performance methodologies to the NFPA Technical Committee on Respiratory Protection Equipment. Based on the information learned from the NIOSH investigations and NIST research, this Technical Committee is in the process of incorporating new test methods and performance criteria for facepiece lenses into the proposed 2013 edition of NFPA 1981Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Service which is slated for completion and issuance as early as the Fall of 2012.  Information on the continuing development of this new edition is available at  http://www.nfpa.org/1981next.

NFPA recommends:

  • SCBA facepiece lenses showing evidence of exposure to intense heat is an indication of thermal degradation and potential failure.  In addition to complying with the Inspection, Repair and Removal from Service provisions of NFPA 1852Selection Care and Maintenance of Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, fire departments, fire academies, and emergency service organizations should ensure that all SCBA facepiece lenses are inspected before and after each use. Any SCBA facepiece lens found to have cracks, crazing, bubbling, deformation, discoloring, gaps or holes should be immediately removed from service and a replacement issued.
  • In addition to complying with the provisions of NFPA 1404Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training, fire departments, fire training academies and emergency service organizations should review their training programs to ensure that the following components are addressed in their curriculum: the limitations of respiratory protection devices; awareness that delayed recognition of intense thermal environments that can occur while wearing a firefighter protective ensemble; and how to respond to problems encountered when using SCBA in high temperature environments.
  • When evaluating fire conditions and determining fire attack tactics and strategies, incident commanders, company officers, and firefighters should take into account the thermal performance limitations of SCBA facepiece lenses and the problem of delayed recognition of heat intensity due to the thermal insulation/protection provided by the PPE ensemble.
  • In addition to following existing departmental Standard Operating Procedures and Guidelines regarding use of PPE, all personnel engaged in commanding, supervising or performing interior fire attack operations can reduce the possibility of facepiece lens deterioration or failure by maintaining constant situational awareness and by being alert for deteriorating conditions indicative of extreme thermal temperatures/flashover conditions. When confronted with such conditions, personnel must initiate self-evacuation or be directed to retreat to a safe area.
  • Fire departments, fire academies, and emergency service organizations that utilize SCBA should begin planning for the upgrade or replacement of current SCBA facepiece lenses with products compliant with the upcoming 2013 edition of NFPA 1981.

About the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
NFPA is a worldwide leader in fire, electrical, building, and life safety. The mission of the international nonprofit organization founded in 1896 is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education.

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