Maintaining the Equipment Lifeline

The Safety Equipment Institute's work is more important than ever to fire and emergency responders.

Editor's note: Patricia A. "Pat" Gleason is president of the Safety Equipment Institute, a private, nonprofit organization created in 1981 to administer non-governmental, third-party certification programs to test and certify safety equipment. SEI's certification programs are accredited by the American National Standards Institute. The institute (call 703-442-5732 or visit www.SEInet.org) has its headquarters in McLean, Va.

Responding to questions from the editors of First Reponder, Gleason provided the following answers on Dec. 13, 2002, explaining the institute's certification of first reponders' PPE and discussing the importance of the federal Department of Homeland Security.

FR: Your institute recently certified the first SCBAs compliant with the revised NFPA 1981 standard. This was a milestone, but it was hardly SEI's first accomplishment for the emergency responder community. How much of SEI's work is dedicated to that market today? Is this percentage increasing?

Gleason: It took five years of hard work invested by hundreds of dedicated individuals (firefighters, government agencies, manufacturers, laboratories, academia, and certifiers) to develop a revised NFPA fire and emergency service self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) standard. In September 2002, SEI issued the first certifications to the 2002 edition of the NFPA 1981 standard. In the range of respiratory protection equipment offered, fire and emergency service SCBA is by far the most sophisticated in its design and operation. No other SCBA can be used in such life-threatening situations as fire fighting, and the use of SEI-certified SCBA is far reaching.

SEI issued its first certifications for SCBA used in the fire service in August of 1992, when the very first NFPA 1981 performance standard was published. Requirements for third-party certification of SCBA were included in that standard in direct response to the firefighting community's request for independent verification including performance testing, design, and quality assurance requirements.

Because of the critical performance characteristics of safety and protective equipment, and the hazardous environments where the products are used, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Technical Correlating Committee (TCC) stipulates that all standards under its protective clothing and equipment project include requirements for third-party certification. In order for a product to comply with an NFPA protective clothing and equipment standard, such as NFPA 1981, the product must be certified by a third party. That third-party certification organization must comply with the requirements of the NFPA standards and be accredited to ISO Guide 65, General Requirements for Bodies Operating Third-Party Certification Systems.

As an accredited third-party certification organization, SEI has the authority to issue certifications for safety and protective equipment. Four manufacturers currently have SEI-certified SCBA to the new NFPA 1981 standard. An additional three manufacturers are expected to complete the certification process after the first of the year.

Q: How many first responder products does SEI currently certify? How and where is the testing performed?

A: SEI certifies virtually all types of protective equipment worn by fire and emergency responders. Testing for products seeking certification to NFPA standards is conducted at ITS in Cortland, N.Y. ITS has developed its personal protective equipment testing facilities to support the SEI certification programs. SEI and ITS personnel work closely on certification issues and monitor the standards development process by participating in the NFPA Technical Committee meetings.

Various performance standards have been created by NFPA to address the needs of structural (NFPA 1971), proximity (NFPA 1976), and wildland (NFPA 1977) fire fighting, urban search and rescue operations (NFPA 1951), and emergency medical operations (NFPA 1999). Personal alert safety devices (NFPA 1982) and powered rescue tools (NFPA 1936) are also standards to which SEI has certified products.

Prior to publication of the first NFPA 1981 standard for SCBA, NFPA had a Technical Committee that had already produced the first standards for protective clothing used in hazardous chemical emergencies. NFPA 1991 addressed requirements for vapor protective suits, and NFPA 1992 addressed liquid-splash protective suits. These standards were written in the late 1980s in response to the growing number of hazardous material responders who were using chemical protective clothing from a variety of sources without consistent protection. In 1985, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that government agencies support the development of protective standards for chemical protection after several first responders were exposed to a hazardous chemical from a leaking railcar, even though the manufacturer recommended the use of their suits for the chemical involved. As a result, NFPA 1991 and NFPA 1992 were developed and generally correspond to the Environmental Protection Agency's Level A and B configurations that are common in the hazardous chemical response and remediation industries.

These standards were the first NFPA standards to require third-party certification. The most current versions of these standards were published in 2000, and SEI has certified 11 different models for companies such as DuPont Personal Protection, Onguard Industries, and Trelleborg Protective Apparel.

Q: How soon will the institute announce its first certifications for powered rescue tools used in emergency response? Which manufacturers are participating in that program?

A: SEI is working with Phoenix Rescue Tools of Warminster, Pa., a manufacturer of powered rescue tools, that is close to completing all the NFPA 1936 performance testing at ITS. Amkus, Inc. of Downers Grove, Ill., has also started the certification process for their rescue tools.

NFPA 1936 includes vigorous performance tests to ensure necessary performance of powered rescue tools used by emergency responders in rescue and recovery operations. SEI anticipates issuing the first certifications for powered rescue tools in early 2003.

Q: Has the importance of certified safety products increased since 9/11? If so, in which areas is the increase most apparent?

A: Use of certified safety products has always been important to emergency responders. In the area of fire and emergency response, purchasers from the larger departments are educated about the various performance standards for the products they purchase. The smaller jurisdictions are now becoming more aware as the type of potential responses they may encounter is expanding. Capabilities for response can vary significantly, and this is a gap which needs to be filled.

There is a strong presence from the firefighters' union in the development of NFPA standards for safety and protective equipment. The expectations for quality and integrity are high, as these fire service representatives know they are speaking on behalf of others in the fire and emergency response service who are not sitting at the table.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11, the subsequent anthrax incidents, and concerns about chemical/biological attacks have brought the needs of fire and emergency responders and law enforcement in front of all the public. Excellent products have always been available to the emergency response service, it is now an issue of funding and supplying certified products to those whose budgets did not previously allow for state-of-the art equipment.

SEI has received a lot of inquires regarding the availability of ensembles certified to a relatively new standard, NFPA 1994 Standard on Protective Ensembles for Chemical/Biological Terrorism Incidents. NFPA 1994 sets performance requirements for protective clothing used at chemical and biological terrorism incidents. It is unique in that it defines three classes of ensembles based on the perceived threat at the emergency scene. Differences between the three classes are based on:

  • the ability of the ensemble design to resist the inward leakage of chemical and biological contaminants
  • the resistance of the materials used in the construction of the ensembles to chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemicals, and
  • the strength and durability of these materials.

All NFPA 1994 ensembles are designed for a single exposure (use), and these ensembles must consist of garments, gloves, and footwear. The first certified ensembles will be available to the public in early 2003.

Q: What impact do you foresee from the creation of a federal Department of Homeland Security?

A: It will take a while to see the effects of such a dramatic restructure of the federal government. I would expect that eventually there would be a central point of contact for the procurement of safety and protective equipment necessary to support homeland security efforts. This would make the task of supplying appropriate products much more efficient for both manufacturers and the federal government.

Through the efforts of an interagency board with representation from a wide variety of government agencies, there has been a tremendous amount of coordination and sharing of information relating to personal protective equipment. This group has also reached out to private industry for their expertise in standards development.

The Department of Homeland Security will need to coordinate effectively to address the safety and protection of millions of firefighters, local police departments, sheriff's offices, and emergency medical technicians who will need training and protective equipment. Beyond effective coordination, it becomes a matter of economics. There has been $3.5 billion allocated to provide critical training and equipment to first responders across the country. With the funding available, the demand for training and equipment will increase. Suppliers in the safety industry will rise to the occasion; they always have.

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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