Warriors without arms, the nation's more than one-million fire fighters battle a fire every 18 seconds, on average, according to the latest statistics from the non-profit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Lying in wait for them, as we all painfully learned on 9/11, is a lethal combination of flame, smoke, heat, and falling debris. "The smoke can choke you, and there is zero visibility," says Lieutenant Larry Monachelli of the New York City Fire Department. Adds Chicago Fire Department Battalion Chief John McNicholas: "the heat comes down on you from all directions."
SCBAs help fire fighters survive smoke
and toxic gases. Thermal imaging cameras help fire fighters find victims,
downed fire fighters, and fires hidden behind walls or above ceilings.
While every fire is not as horrific as the one that destroyed the World Trade Center, all are potential killers. Indeed, fires in the U.S. in 2000, the last year for which the NFPA has records, killed more than 4,000 people, including over 100 fire fighters. (Three-hundred and forty-four fire fighters died in the World Trade Center on 9/11/01.)
Though they carry no weapons as they enter the battleground, fire fighters are hardly defenseless in their war against catastrophe. They have their wits, their training, and a bevy of equipment, most important of which is their self-contained breathing apparatus, the combination facepiece/air cylinder/regulator that feeds them breathing air while blocking the smoke and heat from clogging and burning their lungs.
Before SCBAs came to the fire service in the late 1940s, many departments were staffed with "Leather Lungs"—men who were forced to take their chances inhaling hot, smoking gases. Today's Leather Lungs do that by choice, not necessity.
"SCBAs have made one of the world's most dangerous professions a little safer, and without them fire fighters and hazardous-materials teams could not survive," says Bruce Teele. He is the NFPA staff member who manages the association's massive efforts to write product standards for fire fighter protective gear. All 33,000 U.S. fire departments and several in other countries use the standards to judge the quality of SCBAs and other equipment.
The first SCBAs were clunky devices that World War II pilots used. Adapting the technology for fire-fighter protection was a joint effort of equipment manufacturers, fire service personnel, government officials, and the NFPA itself, which harnessed the energy of the other players to develop the minimum standards all equipment is based on.
Engineers have been upgrading the technology ever since. And, in the close-knit world of fire protection, where customers are deeply involved in product design and "co-opetition" through standards is the rule, an unassuming mechanical engineer out of Penn State has emerged as a leader who rallies troops from all sectors to advance SCBA technology.
Focus on the user. Bill Lambert, vice president of the safety products division of Pittsburgh-based Mine Safety Appliances (MSA), and the volunteer secretary of the national committee that correlates all fire-protection equipment standards, has a passion for fire fighter safety, says the NFPA's Teele. "With his deep engineering knowledge and ability to pull people together, he is one of the key players driving SCBA technology."
"He always thinks first of what's good for fire fighters," notes Rich Duffy, special assistant to the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (the fire fighters' union), and chairman of the NFPA's standards-correlating committee.
Teele and others believe that because of the importance NFPA's standards play in design of all kinds of protective equipment, Lambert's committee work doubles his influence over technology development from what it would be if he just stuck to his knitting at MSA. But more on that later.
To appreciate the depth of Lambert's engineering skills, talk with Phil Fuerst, quality and product engineering manager at Eaton Corp.'s Aeroquip Division (Vanwert, OH). "For Bill, the concept of 'good enough' in engineering design just doesn't cut it," says Fuerst.
Fuerst worked with Lambert on design of a patented quick-fill coupling that revolutionized one important aspect of fire fighting, the sharing of air with comrades. The common method was through "buddy breathing." It worked—it was good enough—but it also exposed fire fighters to deadly gases when they removed their facepieces and regulators to share their air with others. It exposed them to viruses and bacteria, too. Lambert had an idea for a special coupling that would enable fire fighters to share air by connecting a high-pressure hose between their SCBAs rather than removing equipment, and he collaborated with Aeroquip on the design. Lambert eventually was awarded a patent for the system.
This was to be no ordinary coupling. It would have to reliably handle pneumatic pressures up to 4,500 psig during connecting and disconnecting. If you can imagine a fully charged garden hose whipping around, you have an inkling of the difficulty here. And that garden hose is only at 50-60 psig! Clearly, the project required some serious engineering.
Among key components for the solution were seals and finishes (see sidebar). Fuerst says Lambert's engineering knowledge, understanding of the fire environment, and assistance in designing test regimens were critical in finding design solutions. Based on Lambert's idea, the NFPA plans to introduce a requirement in its standard for a universal air connection for replenishing the air supply of trapped fire fighters.
Throughout the joint design project with Aeroquip, Lambert continually acted as cheerleader as well as engineering guru, Fuerst and others recall. "Whenever the project team got discouraged, he would fly out to our facilities and say, 'there's another option,'" says Russ Rogers, who was then the director of Aeroquip's Corporate Engineering Center.
Lambert maintains that cheerleader role today, both at MSA and through his participation in national standards-writing efforts. With his current executive duties, Lambert doesn't have the time anymore to massage designs in the Pro/Engineer and ANSYS software packages that his 29 design engineers use to develop SCBAs, general respirators, and thermal imaging systems. Instead, he guides them, marshals resources and reinforcements, and occasionally joins them in brainstorming sessions to resolve design problems.
"People look up to him because of his technical knowledge," says Rick Katz, director of research and engineering at MSA. "He relates to our situations because he's been there doing the engineering. And that means he can ask tough questions."
Intricate technology. Deceptively simple, SCBAs combine pneumatics, electronics, and specialized materials into a compact, 23-lb package that, depending on design, provides 30-to-60 minutes of air. Big brothers to the SCUBA gear divers wear, they are the ultimate in robust design. And for good reason: They are exposed to incredible extremes in temperature (from -40 to over 2,000F in the course of a few seconds); direct flame impingement; harsh chemicals; and violent smacking, banging, and scraping during fire-fighting operations.
All SCBA suppliers include an integrated PASS (Personal Alert Safety System) with their equipment. The PASS devices sound an irritating but potentially live-saving alarm if a fire fighter goes down so others can find and rescue him. Under Lambert's direction, MSA engineers went beyond the standard and incorporated a computer module into their PASS device that logs data on air consumption, ambient temperature, and alarm activation. Fire officers can download the data through the devices' infrared port onto a personal computer for post-fire evaluation. No other supplier has such a device in production, MSA says.
Engineering Director Katz says that Lambert reviewed the design effort every step of the way. He held regular meetings with the project teams, reviewing documentation and providing direction. "He even took part in the field tests, donning an SCBA that included the new design and wearing it into a burning, smokey building," Katz recalls.
MSA also recently introduced a new mask-mounted SCBA regulator called the FireHawk™. It has a slide-to-connect attachment system that allows fire fighters to hang the regulator on the facepiece when they don't need it, and push it in place when they do. Among its reportedly unique features: It has 70% fewer parts than others on the market. Lambert's engineers combined the functions of components, molding springs into plastic parts, having seals serve multiple purposes, and using buttons and locks to hold multiple parts. Lambert continually reviewed design progress, participating in brainstorming sessions and sharing his knowledge of regulator design, Katz says.
SCBAs combine pneumatics, electronics,
and specialized materials.
Lambert and his team are now working on a telemetry system that will send a signal to fire-ground commanders outside buildings letting them know if a fire fighter is down. Additionally, they are developing a heads-up display for facemasks so fire fighters can more easily see how much air they have left. Requirements for both technologies will be part of the next edition of the NFPA standard.
Beyond SCBAs, Lambert directs his team of engineers in development of new thermal-imaging cameras that enable fire fighters to see victims, downed fire fighters, fires hidden in walls or above ceilings—and to see each other. With roots in military applications, the cameras "give fire fighters their sight back," says Katz.
SCBAs provide breathing air to fire
fighters while protecting their lungs from searing heat and choking smoke.
They are designed to operate in extreme conditions, including temperatures
ranging from -40 to 2000F.
Lack of ability to detect hidden fires was a contributing factor in the deaths of six Worcester, MA fire fighters in December 1999 at a cold-storage warehouse. (Worcester has now purchased 10 such systems.) Says consultant Jon Jones, who conducts training seminars across the country for fire departments, thermal-imaging cameras enable fire fighters to do the primary search of abandoned buildings from a remote location. "Fire fighters can put the cameras through the window of an abandoned building to see if any victims are in there before they rush in, and that will reduce the risks they face," Jones says. "They will change the way fire fighters do their business for the better."
The rest of his story. While Lambert's technical leadership at MSA has resulted in product breakthroughs for that company, it's only part of the story of his contributions to fire-fighter safety, say his colleagues. Also important are his extracurricular, unpaid activities as secretary of the committee of fire fighters, union reps, government officials, testing agencies, and other manufacturers who oversee development of the NFPA's fire-protection-equipment standards.
Standards in some industries often are thought to impede development of technology. Not so in fire protection. The reason: The customers—fire fighters—are part of the standards-writing process, and since their lives can depend on their equipment they push in committees for the best technology they can get. In that sense, NFPA standards and separate government-mandated occupational-health standards drive development of SCBA technology, says Roland Berry Ann, an engineer with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
There's one other reason for the importance of the NFPA standards in fire fighter protective-gear design. Without them, admits one manufacturer who requested anonymity, suppliers would be reluctant to innovate because of the limited market.
Though manufacturers sitting on NFPA committees certainly keep their own interests in mind, they regularly agree to compromises in standards deliberations, NFPA's Teele says, because of the importance of the safety issues they debate. And in that regard, Lambert's committee colleagues consider him to be the role model for objective thinking on standards.
Committee member Ray Reed, captain in the Dallas, TX Fire Department, says Lambert always comes down on the side of the fire service in committee meetings when manufacturers' technical representatives express reluctance to endorse new requirements. "He'll say, 'if that's what the fire service wants, we manufacturers have to find a way to do it,'" Reed says.
Adds Kirk Owen, deputy chief of the Plano, TX, Fire Department and also a committee member: "He is the kind of guy who will remind everyone in the room that the main goal is to do what's good for the fire service. In the heat of an argument, he steps in and helps us get to the heart of the issue."
Owen and Reed say that Lambert's personal tact, as well as his engineering knowledge, enable him to resolve conflicts among technical committee members. One recent example: Fire service members of the NFPA committee wanted product re-call language in equipment standards to cover situations involving defective products. Manufacturers said no. The committee looked to Lambert to resolve the conflict. "He cajoled clothing, glove, and equipment manufacturers by emphasizing their common interest in ensuring confidence in their products," says Teele. They finally yielded, and re-call language will now go into the standards. "Bill often pulls people together like that to solve problems," Teele says.
There is yet another side of Lambert that accounts for his contributions to the advancement of fire-protection technology: his affinity for first-hand research. "You not only have to talk to the users of your product, you have to experience the product the way they do," he says.
With that in mind, Lambert has gone into scores of test fires at MSA's research facilities wearing SCBAs and handling thermal-imaging camera prototypes to see how they work. MSA's Beck recalls a typical occasion regarding the thermal-imaging cameras. "We said we were taking the design to the smoke house to try it out and we would give him a report," Beck says. "Bill said, 'no, I'll come with you and try it out myself'." Lambert emerged from the smoke house covered with soot, but he now had a feel for whether the design was right for the real world.
Interestingly, it's a world he hadn't thought about when he got out of engineering school. Lambert has never been a fire fighter and never actually been in a real fire. But, while working more than 20 years ago as an engineer at the Westinghouse Airbrake Division in Wilmerding, PA, he saw an MSA employment ad and thought the company's focus on safety looked interesting. How did he go from interested to passionate?
"I was inspired by the owners, who constantly reminded the staff of the importance of their work in saving lives, and I was inspired by the fire fighters themselves," he says. "They put their lives on the line every day." Lambert's efforts are helping those warriors survive while they save others.