“It makes a difference, especially when you wear it for 8 hours,” said Tanner Palm.
Palm, dressed in full turnout gear and showing off the new SCBA, is a lieutenant with Mound Fire Department. The SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) is the mask, air tank and harness system that is a firefighter’s lifeline.
Until the end of last year that lifeline was 18 years out of date and what Mound Fire Chief Greg Pederson termed “obsolete.” But that status also aided MFD in its 2019 application with the U.S. Homeland Security FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program. The department received $151,758 or 93 percent of its requested $163,044 in federal grant money last summer. It was the largest grant ever received by the department and it built on one obtained two years prior.
The new SCBA, apart from being more comfortable as Palm pointed out, increase a firefighter’s work cycle, or in-fire time, from an average of 20 minutes to one of 30 minutes thanks to improvements over the years in how much pressurized air each of the fiberglass bottles can hold. The new issue can hold air pressurized at 4,500 psi, which is nearly twice as much as the old bottles held.
The new system is also more inter-connected. The flashing green, yellow and red lights on the harness signal how much air time a firefighter has left and are linked to lights in the breathing mask and to a bell chime that sounds out when air is low.
Palm said that firefighters can be a bit stubborn (what Pederson later half-jokingly called “Type A”) and reluctant to leave a smoke-filled or burning building until air gets past the yellow marker and dips into the red. The “low air” signal is also one that, if it isn’t directly in front of your face, can be hard to miss when caught up in the work of fighting fires, added Tim Palm, a captain with the department. The lights inside the mask solve that problem while the ones on either side of the air tank make sure firefighters are holding each other to their work cycles, too, he said.
Communication between firefighters is also greatly improved, said both Tim and Tanner; the voice amp on the new gear is clearer and sits directly above a mic. The two also explained how the new SCBA record data on how much air an individual firefighter uses over the first 3 minutes they’re wearing it. This is important in order to more accurately pinpoint how much time is left in a firefighter’s work cycle since not everyone breathes the same amount of air at the same rate in every situation, said Tim.
MFD has had a chance already to use the new gear, notably on a call to a large early morning fire in Spring Park that routed several local agencies to a house on Lafayette Lane early last month.
The entire project, begun in 2017 with another AFG application and ending at the end of last year with acquisition of the SCBA, came to $241,000 and all but about $30,400 was funded through grant money—“a huge win,” said Pederson. The department functions on a budget of about $193 per household, according the department’s 2019 report, which is below the state average of $243 and far below the national average of $404. The grant money made a big difference, he said: originally, the department had budgeted about $31,000 over the next 5 years for gradual replacement of its SCBA.
The fire department had lain the ground work for the new breathing apparatus by applying its 2017 grant for $59,000 to the purchase of a new air compressor capable of filling the new higher pressure bottles. That grant also helped to cover a mobile fill station for its rescue truck #22 and the four yellow cylinders stored inside that can provide an on-site refill to the air bottles of individual firefighters.
In getting the new gear on site, Pederson did not hide his enthusiasm: “This is a big deal for us! Getting a whole new compressor system and all new SCBAs…for firefighter safety, upgrading to better high-pressure stuff and getting rid of old stuff that’s essentially obsolete.”