NIOSH Undertakes Service-Life Indicator Rulemaking

Earlier SCBA alarms would be important protection for firefighters. Meanwhile, NFPA is moving to change its NFPA 1981 standard to require that indicators alarm at 33 percent of rated service time.

Firefighters have a stake in a new NIOSH rulemaking that would set 25 percent as the default setting for remaining service-life indicators on open-circuit self-contained breathing apparatus. The manufacturer would have the option of setting it higher at the purchaser's discretion, however.

Comments are due by Aug. 24 and should be submitted via www.regulations.gov with the title "Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus Remaining Service-Life Indicator Performance Requirements, RIN 0920-AA38" and should identify the author(s), return address, and a phone number, in case clarification is needed. The agency asked for comments specifically on these questions:

  • Is 25 percent of the rated service time of the respirator an appropriate default setting for the indicator?
  • Should the rule specify an upper limit that would require that the indicator be set to alarm no earlier than a set amount, such as 50 percent of rated service time?
  • Are there possible emergency or rescue scenarios for which one would want an indicator to alarm at 50 percent or more of the rated service time?

Open-circuit self-contained breathing apparatus mainly are used by firefighters and other rescue workers in environments that may be immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). Currently, the requirement is for the indicator to alarm when the rated service time of the respirator is down to within 20 to 25 percent. After receiving a petition to initiate this rulemaking, NIOSH asked stakeholders for their input and began working on this change; NFPA recently proposed amending NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, in its 2013 edition to require that the indicator alarm at 33 percent, according to the NIOSH proposal.

The issue is highly important because NFPA studies have shown most firefighter deaths in large structure fires are caused by smoke inhalation or asphyxiation, with many attributed to "firefighters going deep into large structures, becoming caught, lost, or disoriented, and then subsequently running out of breathing air before being able to exit," the proposal states. "While modern practice is for firefighters to practice 'air management' or allocate enough breathing air for entry, work, and exit, many find maintaining situational awareness difficult. Many still rely on the indicator alarm to tell them to begin their exit, which is problematic because fire departments are finding that allotting 20-25 percent of the breathing air supply to exit does not allow enough time for escape from a large structure. If the firefighter becomes disoriented in the smoke, rescuers will have very little time to bring the individual out of the building unharmed."

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