Departments, their SOPs and Air Program personnel need to assure that all safety precautions, fit tests and maintenance occur on a regular basis. Sometimes, incidents require a change in SOPs and our practices to ensure safety for our members.

When I first came on the job, each suppression apparatus had a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) pack per crew member on the truck. Each SCBA pack had a mask assigned to it. One extra mask was carried in case there was a malfunction at any time. At shift change, the next crew member(s) would use the same mask that was on their designated SCBA per position on the truck for that day.

The SOP was to wash the mask after every fire for obvious decontamination. What the next crew member did not know is whether the previous user of the pack had any kind of a cold, sneezed in it or had any other illness/sickness that could possibly be passed on to the next person through the mask.

Thus, it was a good idea at the beginning of the shift change to wash the mask anyway, even though it was not required according to our SOPs at the time.

Because of this, our department purchased SCBA masks for all members of the department. An issue that would arise from time to time is that the member would forget to put "his" mask on the pack, may have lost it, forgot to take it off a pack while at another station or had left it in the locker — as is human nature. Once on an emergency scene, he would then use the extra mask that was assigned to the apparatus or use the driver's/chauffeur's air mask.

Personnel also would shove the mask into their firefighting boots (a discouraged practice) rather than placing it on the SCBA backpack. This caused damage to the air mask and obvious contamination issues. The best place for the mask is attached to the lung demand valve (LDV) on the backpack. This helps prevent mask contamination and damage. Plus, the mask is in a "ready" state.

SCBA/PASS unit checks need to occur daily. As the driver, I would perform a leak test, assure the pass units functioned and confirm that the pressure levels were at or above the full mark for each pack. I would make sure the straps were fully extended, with no twists, and fed through the harness adjustment in the right direction.

It was also each firefighter's responsibility to check his/her individual pack and make an entry/initial in the daily log/journal, along with the psi reading that they had completed the check.

One of the most unfortunate events that occurred was a firefighter at my former department had contracted tuberculosis (TB) from what we believed was an air cylinder. There are a couple things we know about TB: 1. It is a highly contagious bacterial infection caught by breathing in contaminated air, in one form or another and, 2. It is a treatable and curable disease; however, it requires several antibiotics be taken for a prolonged period, usually six to nine months.

An investigation was made to see whether this person had contracted it from a patient while on a medical call or by some other means. It was finally determined he may have caught it from the air in the cylinder on the SCBA pack he was wearing. It is believed that the culprit was "stale" air that had not been changed for a period of time and/or that there was a moisture problem resulting in mold formation when damp air remains for a long time in tanks.

Thus, everyone had to take antibiotics — the members at the fire station, this firefighter's family and anyone else who had regular daily association with them. Our Air Program personnel contacted the manufacturer and concluded that even though a cylinder may remain full of air without use for six months, the air must be bled off and replaced with new, fresh, filtered air.

Examples of cylinders not used on a regular basis would be those that are in RIT packs, pony cylinders for confined space use, extended time cylinders like those carried for Haz-Mat, SCUBA cylinders for dive teams, and spares that sit in the station for prolonged periods and don't get rotated.

For the most part, the cylinders assigned to the SCBA packs on the front-line apparatus will get their air changed frequently enough since the "air leak" test that occurs daily will eventually bleed off the air in the cylinder below the full level, or from use at an active fire or for training to the point that it will get refilled or topped off.

It is everybody's job to take precautions for their own well-being, especially when it comes to respiratory protection. We all now know the SCBA is one the most important pieces of equipment we have. We cannot make sacrifices or take shortcuts when it comes to protecting ourselves or our members.

Consistent maintenance and following SOPs and the manufacturer's requirements will help assure we all remain healthy.