How frequently should you test your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)? What standards do you follow? What is the difference between inspections, functional testing, and flow testing? How can you ensure that your SCBA testing is National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)-compliant? How do you know your SCBA is absolutely safe?
These are just a few questions regarding SCBA inspection and testing. You can find answers in the Code of Federal Regulation (CFR), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, and documentation from the SCBA manufacturers. Needless to say, with three different sets of answers, there is bound to be some confusion. Let’s look at the basics.
From a legal standpoint, the federal regulations that apply to firefighters’ respiratory protection are 29 CFR parts 1910.134 and 1910.156. Another source of guidance is NFPA 1852,Standard on the Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Open-Circuit Breathing Apparatus. NFPA standards are the consensus of members representing government, industry, and respirator manufacturers. They are advisory documents, not legal ones, although some states and jurisdictions have adopted NFPA standards as law. Some lawyers will maintain that they establish common practice and, therefore, carry the weight of law.
Basic inspections and functional testing refer to checks performed by the SCBA user. Inspections include visual checks of SCBA components, such as straps, lenses, and tubing, to ensure that there is no excessive wear and tear and to ensure that the air cylinder is full. Inspections include functional tests—buckles actually buckle, regulators and warning devices activate, and the SCBA does not leak. These inspections generally need no specialized equipment. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), NFPA, and SCBA manufacturers all indicate, in varying degrees of detail, what comprises an SCBA inspection.
In addition to the basic inspection, a flow test, also known as a performance test, ensures that an SCBA is performing to the manufacturer’s specifications. Unlike basic inspections and functional testing, flow testing requires specialized equipment, specifically a breathing machine. NFPA 1852 specifies the criteria that the breathing machine must meet, including the tests to perform and the exact curve of the breathing rates. Flow test results are best in numeric or graphical form for easy, immediate analysis. “SCBA testing” is often used as a synonym for “flow testing.”
According to OSHA, you should inspect SCBAs before each use, during cleaning, and at least monthly.
NFPA 1852 advises that a user should inspect his assigned SCBA at the beginning of his shift. For SCBAs not assigned to a specific individual, the inspection interval should not exceed one week. In fact, the inspection interval should never exceed one week.
Most SCBA manufacturers recommend that the SCBA be inspected before and after each use, although recommendations vary for infrequently used SCBAs.
These are all minimum requirements, but think of it this way: A skydiver inspects every element of his parachute before and after each use. He knows that the parachute is his only way to safety after jumping from the airplane. Why would a firefighter do any less?
OSHA does not specify an interval for flow testing. In fact, the term “flow testing” does not appear in the code. SCBA manufacturers and the NFPA, however, recommend at least one flow test annually. In addition, NFPA 1852 states that you should flow test any new SCBA before it goes into service and after any repair or rebuilding. Again, this is the minimum. Obviously, repeated exposure to extreme temperatures, water, and chemicals can degrade SCBA performance. Frequent flow testing can reveal SCBA problems long before an inspection.
First, the SCBA must meet the testing frequency requirements noted above. Second, you must test it on a calibrated breathing machine that meets the NFPA 1852 specifications. The only compliant breathing machine is the Sperian Biosystems PosiChek3®. Third, you must always test SCBAs with the SCBA manufacturer’s software.
Each manufacturer’s own version of PosiChek3 software is more stringent than the NFPA-compliant software supplied with the PosiChek.
NFPA 1852 is very specific. It specifies 12 different performance elements (tests) and the performance level for passing each one. Some of the acceptance criteria list a performance level, then follow with the statement “or shall meet the manufacturer’s specifications, whichever is more stringent.” Several performance tests also require first-stage regulator adapters and are sold only in conjunction with PosiChek3 software.
User-friendly SCBAs with next-generation technology are a start toward safety, but you can’t stop there. All SCBAs, new and old, need attentive maintenance and compliant inspections. Most accidents are caused by improper firefighting procedures, not the SCBAs themselves, but that is no reason to slip up on SCBA maintenance inspection and flow testing that meet and exceed compliance.
● RICHARD L. COTE JR. of LWP Enterprises, LLC, in Greensboro, North Carolina, consults and trains fire departments and industrial users in SCBA testing. Cote was a member of the Sperian Biosystems PosiChek3® design team for nine years. He is considered an expert on test bench equipment.