Firefighters in Washington Train with High-Tech Air Packs

The apparatus protects the face and eyes, provides breathable air, warns when that air is running low, allows firefighters to communicate and sounds an alarm when a firefighter is disabled.

by Aaron Kunkler, Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash. / July 30, 2015
(TNS) -- Of all the equipment a firefighter uses, one of the most critical is the breathing apparatus for entering burning, smoke-filled buildings.

The apparatus protects the face and eyes, provides breathable air, warns when that air is running low, allows firefighters to communicate and sounds an alarm when a firefighter is disabled.

“A lot of technology goes into these,” Yakima Fire Department spokesman Jeff Pfaff said Wednesday as about a dozen firefighters from Yakima and Union Gap got to try out the latest generation of state-of-the-art breathing packs.

The 76 packs were purchased jointly by the two departments, with Yakima footing around $500,000 for 64 packs, and Union Gap contributing an additional $100,000 for the rest.

The 64 packs are enough to cover every position on every firetruck in Yakima, costing about $7,500 per unit with two air bottles each.

Each bottle holds roughly 10 to 20 minutes of air, depending on the intensity at which the firefighters are working and how experienced they are at breathing through the packs.

The Yakima and Union Gap departments are some of the first to receive the new packs on the West Coast, Pfaff said.

One of the most noticeable differences between the old and new packs is a standardized built-in alarm system.

In 2013, the National Fire Protection Association, a global nonprofit fire response and prevention organization, updated regulations for future manufacturers of breathing packs and mandated a universally standardized alarm.

Before, different manufacturers had different alarms installed in their breathing packs, potentially leading to confusion if firefighters equipped with different packs hadn’t heard a particular alert before while working with other departments.

The alarms alert the firefighters when the air pressure is getting low, as well as emit a distress signal if a firefighter is incapacitated. While the old packs had these, the new packs use the standardized alarms, and emit the signal from the front and back of the pack, whereas the older models only sent it out from the front.

The new packs also have improved air flow through the face mask, letting firefighters breathe easier in smoke-filled environments.

Other modifications include an expanded heads-up display in the face mask with status icons keeping firefighters posted on how much air is remaining.

The masks also have higher heat resistance, better microphones and voice amplifications, and are around 3 pounds lighter than the previous packs.

Yakima firefighter Brian Robertson said after running some drills, the weight was one of the most noticeable improvements.

“The lighter equipment just makes our job that much easier,” he said.

“They’re a great piece of equipment.”

Firefighters generally wear about 75 to 100 pounds of equipment in addition to their basic uniform underneath. Every ounce that can be shaved off helps, Pfaff said.

The purchase of the 64 Yakima packs was approved by the City Council.

“The city heard us, and they supported us in that,” Yakima fire Capt. Don Wolterstorff said. “We’re quite excited.”

All fire crews from Yakima and Union Gap must practice with the new packs before they’ll be put into service, Pfaff said.

If everything goes according to schedule, firefighters should make the transition to the new packs by the end of August.

The packs are G1 Self Contained Breathing Apparatus and are manufactured by MSA Safety Inc., based in Pennsylvania.

Additional air tanks were purchased as well. Buying both the packs and bottles in bulk lowered the cost of replacing the aging breathing packs.

©2015 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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