Bells and whistles don’t mean some unnecessary extras when it comes to a new set of critical gear in use by firefighters.
These devices and the noises they make are literal lifesavers for firefighters.
Blips, beeps and syncopated knocking sounds are just some of the aural features in the 89 new Scott airpacks acquired by all Hood River County departments in December.
A hissing sound filling the Hood River fire hall main bay one day in December was music to the ears of the firefighters: it was the sound of the air being let out of the 15-year-old MSA packs that have been replaced with new SCBA tanks, with the help of a federal grant.
SCBA stands for Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus and, as installer and trainer Lieut. Paul Henke of Hood River Fire attests, they are the most important piece of equipment to a firefighter.
“You can’t fight fires if you can’t breathe,” Henke said. Each unit includes a new mask, back frame, and two air cylinders.
Fires can get loud as well as hot and dangerous, and all these vivid sounds made by the Scott packs work to keep users and fellow firefighters safe.
A rapid thumping sound indicates when a pack has reached 1,300 pounds of air, or about six minutes to get outside.
All those sounds are the sonic soul of what is known as PASS — Personal Alert Safety System — for the device that alerts firefighters and their partners to oxygen depletion, or an immobilized firefighter (see sidebar, page 16.)
“I’m super-excited about having some new packs,” said Henke, who was the one to inspect and put into service the MSA units 15 years ago.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently awarded a $554,509 grant to Hood River County Fire agencies. This regional grant helped county agencies purchase 89 Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) with spare bottles and masks that meet the current National Fire Protection Association standards.
Hood River Fire and EMS, West Side Fire District, Wy’East Fire District, Cascade Locks and Parkdale Fire District are now using equipment that offers a wide array of advanced safety features, noted Hood River Fire Chief Leonard Damian.
The new units replace aging SCBA equipment that no longer meet current standards. The aging equipment, purchased before 2005, exceeded its operational life expectancy, according to Damian.
County departments matched the federal grant with $55,450 for a total cost of this project of $609,960.
“It is essential that we provide our firefighters with the equipment they need to stay safe and that meet national standards,” Damian said.
The Scott system issues an impossible-to-miss alert when the oxygen level is low, as each tank provides about 20 minutes of use. So a firefighter can exit the space and get a replenishment, and return to the fire.
“After two bottles, you have to go to rehab — you go and rest. And you may end up going back in but you have to at least take a little break,” Henke said.
Another perk, from a service standpoint: the entire pack runs on six AA batteries. The MSAs had separate battery installations for the mask and regulator, “head’s up” transmitter and receiver (alerting user to low oxygen level).
“This has just one set of batteries. In the long run it’s a huge savings,” said Henke, who estimates each department will cut down on hundreds of batteries a year.
"Every six months, I would order over $800 in batteries,” and recycle the old ones," Henke said. The cost will at least be cut in half, he said,
“They’re beautiful,” Henke said. “They are a little bit heavier but we traded that for a narrower bottle, which is less bulky for getting into tighter spaces.”
He said the biggest improvement is how the regulator fits to the mask. With MSAs it was a more complicated action, now it’s just a quarter-turn, for one simple motion.
“Everybody here got used to 15 years of — 'this’ —” Henke demonstrates several sideward and twisting motions — “and now we just gotta do to ‘this’" — a single downward motion, to be done by a partner.
Training was carried out in November and December.
“We’ve been training on them, every shift, so everyone can get comfortable with them,” Henke said. “Hood River County is now running Scott packs.”