SCBA fit testing – Ensuring firefighters’ safety equipment is actually safe

By David Meronk, BWC Industrial Safety Consultant Specialist

Firefighting techniques and equipment used to fight fires have evolved over the years, along with the equipment that protects firefighters from harm.

The self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) plays a big role in protecting the health of firefighters. Knowing is understanding and fire departments are slowly beginning to grasp the real difference safety gear – and its proper use – can make in protecting firefighters from cancer and other ailments.

This increased awareness comes as Ohio now allows presumptive cancer workers’ compensation claims for those who have or may become ill due to specific forms of cancer while performing official duties as a firefighter.

As a safety consultant for BWC’s Division of Safety & Hygiene, I routinely visit fire stations to review and make recommendations on improving safety to protect our first responders. I often advise on use and care of SCBAs, air cascade air fill stations and firefighting turnout gear.

While fire departments do often lack the funding needed to replace the safety equipment, what surprises me most as I travel and meet with fire chiefs is not lack of proper equipment but improper use of that equipment and a lack of well-written safety programs.

Reviewing and updating policies can help reduce exposure to injury and illness, while promoting good safety practices. I find many chiefs are shocked when they discover their current polices are non-compliant to National Fire Protection Association and Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

I remind chiefs that “accidents do not discriminate” and encourage them to embrace the opportunity to make changes that can prevent injuries. A professional saying in the Fire Emergency Services is, “If you didn’t write it down, you didn’t do it.”

Especially alarming to me is inadequate or completely nonexistent SCBA “fit testing.”

The respiratory protection program requires fit testing, and SCBA facepiece fit testing is necessary to ensure masks have an adequate mask seal and an acceptable fit factor. Fit tests evaluate the interaction between the firefighter’s face and the SCBA facepiece to ensure a correct and proper fit.

Per OSHA standards, employers must obtain a written recommendation from a designated physician or other licensed health care professional (PLHCP) regarding each employee’s ability to use a respirator before fit testing. The written release(s) must apply to every type of respirator an employee will use.

Fit testing is critical because firefighters work in environments that are unstable and constantly changing. They are also exposed to unknown inhalation hazards while doing their job. Therefore, they deserve nothing less than the specialized training, tools and equipment to perform their duties safely and efficiently.

Fire departments can conduct fit testing in-house, if they have qualified individuals to administer the test with a calibrated machine. Certified equipment representatives can also administer the test if needed. Depending on the type of fit test machine and types of SCBAs, fire departments can conduct multiple tests of different air packs and masks by switching over the correct fittings for testing.

Fit testing helps maintain proper sizing of the facepiece, safety compliance, training verification and documentation. Fit testing must occur before a firefighter uses a SCBA in an immediately dangerous to life or health environment and once annually thereafter.

There are two types of fit testing: qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative test requires using a sensitizer to test for an air-tight seal. The quantitative test uses a device to measure the amount of air from the environment outside the facepiece in relation to the air inside the facepiece. The fit test includes time-allotted exercises that testers perform on the equipment to make sure it passes. The fire department must maintain all testing records until the next required fit.

There are several exemplary fire departments that do a great job of fit testing, and maintaining solid safety policies. I count the City of Findlay among them.

I’m on a mission to move all Ohio fire departments into that exemplary category. Improperly used safety equipment isn’t safe, and well-written safety policies are great but useless if not followed.

Visit our website to request a consultation with a BWC safety expert, or email me at david.m.15@bwc.state.oh.us for more information.

David Meronk has 30 years of safety experience, including firefighting in military, civil service, private industry, and state and federal contract work overseas. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Fire & Safety Engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a Master’s degree in Emergency Management – Terrorism from Jacksonville State University.

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