Part 1 in this series identifies the need for hydrostatic testing of self contained breathing apparatus used by firefighters and rescue personnel. Part 2 in this series will provide a summary of the frequency requirements and safety precautions associated with hydrostatic testing of self contained breathing apparatus compressed gas cylinders.
Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) are one of the most important items of personal protective equipment used by firefighters and rescue personnel. SCBA allow firefighters to enter hazardous environments to perform essential interior operations including offensive fire attack, victim search, rescue and removal, ventilation, and overhaul. They are also used at non-fire incidents involving hazardous materials and confined spaces where there is a threat of toxic fumes or an oxygen-deficient atmosphere. There have been cases in the past where catastrophic SCBA failure may have been a contributing factor in the deaths or injuries of firefighters. Standards and testing procedures have been changed over time to address problems which led to these failures and to ensure that SCBA are more durable and reliable. Nonetheless, firefighters must realize that catastrophic failures of SCBA are still possible. There are limits to the physical and environmental punishment that SCBA can endure. Regular inspection, upgrade, and preventive maintenance which includes hydrostatic testing of self contained breathing apparatus will lessen the potential for catastrophic failures of SCBA in the future.
Breathing Air Cylinder Hydrostatic Testing
The testing of compressed gas cylinders, including those containing breathing air for SCBA, is regulated by the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) under CFR 49. Breathing air cylinders must be hydrostatically tested on a regular basis. Test intervals for SCBA cylinders are dependent on construction type. Composite SCBA cylinders must be tested at a minimum of every 3 years. Cylinders constructed from aluminum or steel must be tested every 5 years. All composite SCBA cylinders have a maximum service life of 15 years, provided they are hydrostatically re-tested on a regular basis in accordance with DOT regulations. At the end of the 15 year service life, composite cylinders must be removed from service and destroyed . While aluminum or steel cylinders have an indefinite service life they must be carefully monitored for signs of damage, especially around vulnerable areas like the cylinder neck. Cylinders that have been subjected to unusual stresses (e.g., dropped from a height, run-over by fire apparatus, etc.), or exposed to chemicals such as corrosives must be immediately removed from service, purged of air, and hydrostatically tested. Failure to ensure that cylinders are properly hydrostatically tested as prescribed in DOT regulations may result in catastrophic failures that could kill or injure firefighters, as well as cause major damage to apparatus and facilities. Personnel tasked with filling SCBA cylinders must be aware of hydrostatic testing requirements. All cylinders with a current hydrostatic test must have the date of the last test either stamped on the cylinder neck, or prominently displayed on the body of the cylinder. Before filling a breathing air cylinder, it should be visually inspected for damage and checked for a current hydrostatic test date. Cylinders that have visible thermal or mechanical damage, or that lack a current hydrostatic test should never be filled. These cylinders should be purged and immediately removed from service. The cylinders may then be sent for hydrostatic testing by qualified personnel. Although it seems a routine activity, extreme caution must always be exercised during air refill operations. Personnel tasked with refilling SCBA cylinders should be properly trained and educated about the potential dangers of compressed air. Strict procedures should be followed to ensure that fill-lines are not charged inadvertently, and that cylinders are filled to the correct pressure.
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Jay L Harman’s DOT Hydrostatic Testing facility and equipment meet all NFPA requirements for the hydrostatic testing of self contained breathing apparatus compressed gas cylinders in addition to testing ABC portable fire extinguisher cylinders.
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