Respiratory apparatus saving lives


What are respirators and breathing apparatus, and how are they used to help firefighters on the front line against hazardous materials and gases, and smoke inhalation?

Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) is a type of personal protective equipment designed to protect the wearer from breathing in harmful substances, or from oxygen-deficient atmospheres, when other controls are either not possible or are insufficient on their own. The use of RPE allows efficient, effective and safe working practices to be adopted at incidents of all sizes and types where an irrespirable atmosphere presents a hazard to personnel. There are two main types of RPE; respirators and breathing apparatus (BA).

Respirators are filtering devices that remove contaminants from the air being breathed in; non-powered respirators rely on the wearer breathing to draw air through the filter. Respirators are not suitable for use in oxygen-deficient atmospheres.

Breathing apparatus (BA) requires a supply of breathing-quality air from an independent source such as an air cylinder. Breathing apparatus (BA) enables firefighters to breathe safely in otherwise irrespirable atmospheres. The use of BA as a control measures is likely to be applied as part of the incident plan for any incident involving:

  • Smoke and fire gases
  • Working in confined spaces
  • Hazardous materials including:
    • Asphyxiants
    • Dusts
    • Toxic, flammable or explosive substances

If RPE is used, it must be able to provide adequate protection for individual wearers; RPE cannot protect the wearer if it leaks. Face mask fit testing is a method of checking that a tight-fitting facepiece matches the wearer’s facial features and seals adequately to their face. A face mask fit test should be carried out as part of the initial selection of the RPE and it is good practice to ensure testing is repeated on a regular basis. 

The need for firefighters to enter a burning building to enable them to extinguish a fire has always been hindered by the smoke generated from the flames –  so breathing apparatus is essential. In the late 1800s, there had been many attempts to find a solution to the problem but it wasn’t until the turn of the century when the first practical attempts were developed.

Siebe Gorman and Co introduced smoke helmets, based on the principle of a deep-sea diver’s breathing system. Air entered a helmet through breathing tubes, which were connected to a set of bellows at each side, operated by a second person. A neck curtain attached to the helmet was tucked into the firefighters tunic, providing a reasonably air-tight seal. However, the equipment was very restrictive as firefighters could only go as far as the air hose allowed.

First hand experience

The London Fire Brigade describes when to use different types of breathing apparatus and how it aids firefighters to fight fires even when sight and air is compromised.

Breathing apparatus is a key piece of equipment for firefighters across the world. Breathing apparatus allows firefighters to see and breath through thick smoke during a fire emergency. This helps protect firefighters from respiratory distress and enable them to fulfill their job in a safer environment. The LFB breathing apparatus consists of one or two oxygen cylinders and an oxygen mask that securely covers the whole face.

Since the 1960s we have been using compressed air breathing sets to aid firefighting. The sets we use today are lighter, and last a lot longer than the ones from the 60s.

When do firefighters use breathing apparatus?

Firefighters will pull on a BA set anytime they are entering a situation where the atmosphere might cause difficulty breathing. That could be anything from a smoky building, to an incident where chemicals have been spilled.

How much air does a BA set hold?

London Fire Brigade currently has two different types of BA. Each set lets firefighters breath oxygen for different lengths of time.

  • Standard duration Breathing Apparatus
  • Extended Duration Breathing Apparatus

Standard Duration Breathing Apparatus (SDBA)

Standard duration breathing apparatus has only one cylinder – all our firefighters are trained to use SDBA and all our fire engines carry them. The set weighs about 15kgs.

If a firefighter is breathing normally a SDBA they should get 31 minutes of air. But, if the firefighter is working really hard and breathing really hard, the cylinder won’t necessarily last that long.

Extended Duration Breathing Apparatus (EDBA)

To use extended duration breathing apparatus firefighters must complete specialist training. EDBA sets have two cylinders, so they weigh a bit more than a SDBA – 23kgs.

If a firefighter is breathing normally an EDBA they should get 47 minutes of air. But, if the firefighter is breathing heavily, the cylinder won’t necessarily last for 47 minutes.

EDBA is usually brought out when firefighters have to travel longer distances using breathing apparatus, like a train stuck in a tunnel.

How do you keep track of everyone using BA?

Whenever firefighters are using breathing apparatus we set up a Breathing Apparatus Entry Control (BAEC). This system lets us track who’s gone into a building with BA and who’s come out – we always go in as a pair and come out as a pair. We mark this information down on an entry control board (ECB).

Firefighters on the front line already put themselves in harms way to save lives. Providing equipment that can make that job easier and less dangerous is a necessity. Technology can provide means of breathing equipment for short periods, and must continuously be evolved to adapt to the growing needs of firefighters in all aspects to protect from smoke, hazardous materials, toxins and more. It is imperative that manufacturers take into consideration permeability, seals, visual aids and more when designing new equipment. 

Commentary: Yohan Morel, EMEA Marketing Leader, First Responder & Government Segments 

Firefighters jobs have evolved and have become more challenging as, in addition to firefighting, they play a critical role in a variety of incidents that may expose firefighters to respiratory hazards like technical rescue, first aid and most recently the emergency service in COVID-19 pandemic. 

The majority of risks they face are caused by climate change, as well as the changes in the fabric of our own lives. Due to modern synthetic materials, fires are more dangerous because of the increasing heat load. Firefighters are exposed to more complex compounds of products, toxic substances or any negative biological agents while in the line of duty. Inhalation of these compounds and hot gases can result in acute and chronic health effects.

Hence, it is important that the solutions of respiratory protection are properly matched to the requirements of each situation. Depending on the level of security, fire brigades can use full-facemask together with SCBA or half-facemask air-purifying respirators. Both types of masks offer great protection and high wearing comfort by well face fitting. 

Along with the increase of firefighters’ exposure to toxic substances but also virus spread, new worries about equipment hygiene also appeared. Because the respirators are designed for reuse, they can be repeatedly disinfected, cleaned, and placed back into service. It becomes critical to select equipment that can be easily cleaned and disinfected and can resist over the time from potential damage caused by cleaning agents or the cleaning methods themselves.


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Media contact

Rebecca Morpeth Spayne,
Editor, International Fire Buyer

Tel: +44 (0) 1622 823 922

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