The SCBA revolution

Thirty pounds. That’s a well-packed office bag, complete with laptop, paperwork, power supplies, etc. It’s a couple of grocery bags, gathered in a bundle to save a last trip from the car to the kitchen. Most people wouldn’t think twice about carrying thirty pounds of anything more than a few steps from the Metro to the office, or from Best Buy to the car. In truth, it’s not that much weight, for short periods of time. But try carrying it on your back while you run, crawl, crouch, climb, or even just take a bone-jarring step down from an elevated vehicle cab with more weight than your body was built to be spry with. However, regardless of the complaints or the conditions, firefighters do this several times each day; and there’s no shortage of members who will tell you the toll it can take on their bodies. The extended use of the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) currently utilized by departments all over the world doesn’t seem to lead to friendly outcomes for firefighters’ knees or backs—two problem areas that plague many within the brotherhood, both past and present.

Future generations—perhaps even our own, within the next few years—may soon be forced to worry about something else. Vulcore Industrial, based out of Fort Wayne, IN, has been developing what they call the “Flat Pack.” With this new design, they’re setting themselves up to revolutionize the way firefighters carry their most essential tool: breathing air. Current systems are based around a metal cylinder with a carbon fiber over-wrap; at 7+ inches in diameter, the added bulk on top of already shoulder-widening gear can make confined or entangling spaces almost impossible to navigate. Accordingly, a significant portion of fire academy instruction is related to maneuvering with the SCBA; at times, areas can get so narrow that one must resort to removing a shoulder strap and swinging the system around to the side of the now “thinner” firefighter.

At a diameter of 2.75″ each, the multi-cylinder system provides firefighters with no more bulk than a mostly empty school backpack. The new system—based off of CEO Stan Sanders’s patented design and a material called Hytrel—is molded into the thin bottles and then wrapped with Aramid and carbon fiber. According to the manufacturer’s specifications, the first “808 model” weighs up to 30% less than current systems, putting the prototype at a hair over 20 lbs. The “Cobra” model is advertised as 30% lighter than the 808. Thus, the potential exists for a breathing apparatus with the same amount of air/breathing time; but at 14 lbs, it’s over 50% lighter than what the fire service is using now. Vulcore Industrial was unavailable for comment, although their full set of Frequently Asked Questions is available here.

Images © Vulcore Industrial, LLC

In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security offered a 15-month, $2.7 million grant to the IAFF for the purposes of equipment research; and although the technology and initial prototypes were born from Vulcore, they just didn’t have the manufacturing power to mass-produce their product. Mine Safety Appliances, more commonly known throughout the fire service as MSA, has been assigned the daunting task of making Vulcore’s dream an assembly-line reality. The grant money will additionally be used for field testing and fulfilling government/NFPA certification requirements. An advisory committee working with the IAFF and International Personal Protection, Inc. has recommended a 45-minute service-rated system for the initial wave, although Vulcore states that they have the ability to produce 30- and 60-minute systems for different applications.

According to the May/June 2010 issue of International Fire Fighter, “Several firefighters from the Washington, D.C. area, conducted rigorous field tests to determine how a new, lighter, and lower-profile system would compare to the traditional SCBA… [the] series of functional tests, including timing, donning and doffing, roof operations, ladder escapes, crawling through tight spaces and fire ground survival skills” appeared to bode well for the system’s future in emergency services. Initial reactions are overwhelmingly positive, due to the light weight and increased maneuverability:

Video © Bobby Halton, Editor-in-Chief of Fire Engineering Magazine.

Additionally, videos posted on Vulcore’s own website show how the Flat Pack simplifies many of the entanglement hazards present inside dangerous environments:

The IAFF is expecting commercial production of the Flat Pack within the next year, marking a new introduction to an application that hasn’t changed since the first firefighting breathing apparatus was developed almost forty years ago.

3 Comments

  • Dave Dinelli says:

    “The IAFF is expecting commercial production of the Flat Pack within the next year” ???

    The cylinders do not have DOT approval yet, they are 6000 psi (how are we going to fill them) and the packs don’t fit anywhere on our apparatus. Not to mention it will cost 5 times what an air pack does now to hydrotest it. (that information came from a MSA salesperson)

    I like the idea of a better tool for us to use, however this unit still has a lot of things that need to be worked out before they have a sellable unit. I would bet another 5 years until we have a working unit for us.

    The picture above shows the unit well beyond the ff’s rear end. If he is on his back isn’t he sitting on the unit? What about the denver drill can a ff sit on the ground with this unit? I’d love to see more video both benefits and problems with the unit. I’m just not sure I would wait for it to come out if your department needs units now.

  • Chewy says:

    Do you want your shield?

  • I can only imagine how physically demanding it must be to be a firefighter. Technology is advancing though and can help firefighters perform their duties in a more comfortable way. For example, new portable multi-gas detectors weigh less, have impact resistant coating and can provide accurate readings concerning the levels of various gases.

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Alex Capece

Washington, D.C. Firefighter and Paramedic
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