The Impact on Breathing Apparatus (BA) procedures over the years

The following is a brief history of breathing apparatus (BA) used within the British Fire Service. This very important piece of the fire-fighters kit has gone through many changes over the years which usually was the result of a fire-fighters death or at the least a recognition of the failings of a procedure.

The History of BA - 1943

In this year the Manual of Firemanship Part 1 recommended that where breathing apparatus is available:

Men in BA should always work in pairs.
On occasions it may be desirable to trail a bobbin line to enable men to retrace their steps.
In some circumstances line signals may be advantageous provided a separate line is used for signals.

The History of BA - 1945

In this year the Part 6a of the Manuals of Firemanship further recommends in respect of BA procedures:

If the smoke is thick BA should be worn.
Burning electrical insulation and fires involving industrial processed may make BA essential due to the noxious atmosphere produced.
Precautions for moving in smoke and darkness using the hands and feet to feel the way.

The History of BA - 1949

The first fire occurred at 1110 hours on 20 December 1949 in the basement of Covent Garden Market. It continued until 1340 hours on 22 December 1949 and was a very difficult and hazardous fire.

The lessons learnt from this fire were:-

No guidelines - Hose used for this purpose was difficult to trace in the deepening water which eventually reached four feet in depth.
Men worked alone - In trying to rescue a colleague, one fireman became so exhausted he barely made it back to street level to summon assistance. As it happened he collapsed and vital minutes were lost in the rescue attempt.
No recording and supervising procedures for men entering and leaving the incident in BA.
No method of summoning assistance in an emergency as with present day DSU.
Communications were bad to non-existent - These consisted of signals or as was often practised, the mouthpiece was removed thereby allowing the ingress of toxic products into the respiratory tract.
No minimum charging pressure for BA cylinders. Many were only 2/3 full.
No low cylinder pressure warning device.
Many donned BA but did not start up until it was absolutely essential by which time they had taken in quantities of smoke and gases which had its effects. It would appear that an ability to “eat smoke” and the time taken to service sets were contributing factors in this procedure.
It is interesting to note that none of the above points were deemed worthy of further investigation and it was considered that the brigade’s organisation was satisfactory, as stated in the Chief Fire Officer, Mr F W Delve’s report dated 24 January 1950 to the London City Council.

The History of BA - 1950

In 1950 the London Brigades introduced a nominal roll board which was held in the watch room. Names of crews were appended at change of watch and through the day as necessary. Men wearing BA had the letters BA appended after their names. These boards were not, it would appear, carried on appliances responding to incidents. Other than the nominal roll board, the procedure for BA did not change between the 1949 fire and the next in 1954.

The History of BA - 1954

The second fire at Covent Garden Market occurred in a five storey warehouse at 1500 hours on 11 May 1954 and continued until approximately 2230 hours on the same day.

The lessons learnt from this fire were:-

No recording and supervising of men entering and leaving the incident in BA. In fact one fireman was only unaccounted for when a roll call was taken at the fire stations which had responded to the incident.
No means of summoning assistance in an emergency - Crews took nearly an hour to locate a trapped colleague after a collapse.
No evacuation signals to warn men to withdraw if signs of collapse became evident.
It is obvious that the above lessons were some of the same as experienced at the 1949 basement fire.

The History of BA - 1955

Following the second fire at Covent Garden the Home Office issued Technical Bulletin No 2/1955. This document stresses the importance of two fundamental points of good BA procedure:-

BA should be donned and started up in fresh air before the wearer enters the incident.
If the wearer’s nose clip or face mask become dislodged for any appreciable amount of time he should return to fresh air to avoid the problems associated with the exposure to noxious atmospheres.
Once again it would appear that no other moves were made to provide a more detailed procedure for the operational use of BA.

The History of BA - 1958

In the early hours of 23 January 1958, a fire broke out in the basement of Smithfield Market. This fire was to be one of the most difficult London Fire Brigade had faced. The incident continued for three days.

Once again there were lessons to be learned. The same problems occurred at Smithfield as had occurred at the two previous fires at Covent Garden. the single exception was a local procedure set up by the London Fire Brigades in 1956 following the second Covent Garden Fire. This was the provision of a Control Point set up in Charterhouse Lane to record the entry of men into the BA incident. The Control Point consisted of a blackboard and recorded:

a) Name
b) Station
c) Time of entry
d) Time due out

This procedure proved invaluable and was to indicate later in the incident that two men were missing and overdue.

Following the loss of life at Smithfield and Covent Garden, January 1958 saw calls for a more comprehensive schedule of BA procedures to be formulated. These calls came from Mr Delve, Chief Fire Officer of London, Mr Leete, Deputy Chief Fire Officer of London and Mr Horner of the Fire Brigades Union. In addition the FBU circulated its 20000 members with a questionnaire on possible procedures and invited suggestions with a £100 prize for the best.

Due to the outcry over the recent deaths of firemen, the Home Office set up a Committee of Inquiry into the operational use of BA. This was a sub-committee of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. It appeared from its first meeting that some efforts had previously been made by the Home Office to establish a procedure for the use of BA but nothing had been circulated to brigades on the progress made.

Twelve brigades were circulated with a trial procedure.

By this date a number of observations and recommendations had been received by the Committee of Inquiry which began to prepare an interim report.

FIRE SERVICE CIRCULAR 37/1958 was issued. It detailed the findings of the Committee of Inquiry and recommended the following:-

Tallies for BA sets
A Stage I and Stage II control procedure for recording & supervising BA wearers.
The duties of a control operator.
The procedure to be followed by crews.
A main control procedure.
Paragraph 4 of the accompanying letter to the above Circular requested brigades to report their observations and recommendations in light of experience by the end of November 1959. The letter goes on to say that no specifications for the design and use of guide or personnel lines will be issued until more experience had been gained. Recommendations were, however, made in respect of a specification for Low cylinder pressure warning device. Distress signal device.

The History of BA - 1959

FIRE SERVICE CIRCULAR 41/1959 was issued requesting brigades to submit their findings on the recommended procedures by 31 December 1959.

The History of BA - 1960

As it was clear that the use of BA would require more men to be trained in the use and procedures, guidance on the selection of men as BA wearers was given in FIRE SERVICE CIRCULAR 32/1960 promulgated following the 24th meeting of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council on 27 July 1960. It recommended:-

18 months operational service before BA training.
A possible age limit for wearers.
Standards of fitness.
Two BA wearers per appliance equipped with BA.

The History of BA - 1961

Following submissions by brigades on the interim report and procedures recommended by the Committee of Inquiry into the operational use of BA, a DEAR CHIEF OFFICER LETTER was promulgated in August 1961. This dealt with the revised procedures:-

A control board as opposed to a nominal roll board which was to be carried on all appliances equipped with BA.
In Stage II, a column for the location of crews & as a low pressure warning device was now available, a “time of whistle”.
A remarks column.
Different coloured tallies for different types of apparatus.
A set of working duration tables to be permanently attached to each BA Control Board.
A safety margin of 10 minutes allowed in the calculations.
An arm band to identify entry control officers for both Stages I and II.
Still no standards or procedures for guide and personal lines.

The History of BA - 1962

At the 28th meeting of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council on 24 February 1962, the revised procedures were accepted and recommended for adoption by brigades which would be circulated with copies of these procedures.

This was duly achieved by the issue in April 1962 of FIRE SERVICE CIRCULAR 19/1962. As an enhancement of the printed script diagrams were included as appendices. Once again no procedures or specifications for the use of guide or personal lines.

The History of BA - 1963

To take account of the newly established recording and supervising procedures for BA introduced into the Fire Service, Part I of Manuals of Firemanship was reprinted. However, it only dealt in general term with the subject & the reader is referred to Fire Service Circular 19/1962.

As the 32nd meeting of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council on 4 July 1963 the Council approved a report by the sub-committee set up to inquire into the operational use of BA and the use and procedures for communications equipment.

These recommendations were later to be circulated to brigades as FIRE SERVICE CIRCULAR 30/1963 which recommended:-

Types of communications equipment later to come under specification JCDD/19/1 (Joint Council for Design and Development). The procedures to be adopted with such equipment. Where guidelines were used together with personal lines, a hook with serrations on one side was to be provided on the personal line. When hooked to the guideline, the serrations were to be on the way out side. A diagram of such a hook was appended. Still no standards or procedures for guide and personal lines.

The History of BA - 1965

A Home Office survey reported that, as a result of the increasing need to use BA at incidents, the Fire Service had available approximately 3490 sets on first line appliances.

The problems of lack of progress in producing and adopting a specification and procedure for the use of guidelines was soon to become a major issue.

The History of BA - 1966

On 6 February 1966 at 1245 hours a fire broke out at a secret underground radar station at RAF Neatishead in Norfolk. It burned for 9 days.

The lessons learnt from this fire were:-

No personal lines - Team members got separated and lost. This lead to the death of 2 firemen.
No main or branch guide lines - In the case of the former, the distance between the main entrance to the incident and the fire was some 500 yards. The hose being used as a guide line was so long and snaked under pressure that it was difficult and sometimes impossible to follow. As a result of the snaking travel distances were increased dramatically.
The sets in use were of relatively short duration (20 minutes). In taking the extended route in and what was thought to be a more direct route out, men lost contact with the hose, costing the life of a Divisional Officer who ran out of air.
The Communications equipment used was not successful as it became entangled with other equipment. Communications was lost in the early stages of the fire. Communication between crews with Proto sets was non-existent but compressed air sets with face masks allowed good intercommunications between crew members.
RAF had no recording or supervising procedures thus there was a lack of knowledge for responding local authority crews.
1(1)(d) visits were very few and the sparse information and lack of plans available did not assist firemen as to the best route to take to the seat of the fire.
Relief crews sent in 5 minutes before time of whistle - No appreciation made of the time for relief crews to enter and reach the fire and working crews to return to control.
Distress Signal Unites not available - When men got lost or separated these would have assisted in locating them.
Heat problems - As men were never trained in heat, there were severe operational problems, even for experienced crews.
In 1966, the Home Office issued TECHNICAL BULLETIN 10/1966. This included the physical specification for the DSU, methods of attachments to sets and the prescribed testing procedure.

In an effort to produce a recognised evacuation signal for use on the fire ground, Chief Officers were circulated with a DEAR CHIEF OFFICER LETTER No 25/1966. This letter requested brigades to give details of any evacuation procedures currently used and any other views on the subject.

The History of BA - 1969

Following the lessons learnt at Neatishead, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council issued FIRE SERVICE CIRCULAR 46/1969 in December 1969 following extensive trials by brigades. The Circular dealt with both the specifications and operational procedures for the use of guidelines, personal lines and branch lines. To provide more information, a number of diagrams of equipment were attached as an appendix. The facing letter of the Circular recommended adoption of the procedures.

In addition to the above, Appendix C to the Circular now recommended to Chief Fire Officers a standard evacuation signal “repeated short blasts on the Acme Thunderer type whistle” and that Leading Firemen and all ranks above should carry these whistles.

The History of BA - 1970

DEAR CHIEF FIRE OFFICER LETTER 13/1970 was issued to clarify the fact that the evacuation signal given by using a whistle should be used for that purpose and no other.

Following the introduction of procedures for guide and personal lines, there were some problems experienced by brigades in obtaining supplies. A Dear Chief Officer Letter was issued in response to a request for information on suppliers.

Following the introduction of the 1800 litre cylinder charged to 200 ats, there was guidance on the mixed use of these cylinders of the ultra lightweight type also charged to 200 ats. A Fire Service Circular recommended that where the two were used together, the lower duration of the 1800 litre cylinder should be used as the standard.

The History of BA - 1971

In 1971, a problem occurred with the recording and supervision of incidents where compressed air breathing apparatus sets had cylinders of two different capacities. This followed the introduction of the larger capacity Ultra lightweight cylinder in 1969. The matter was resolved by working on the duration of the smallest capacity cylinder.

The History of BA - 1974

FIRE SERVICE CIRCULAR 22/1974 recommended that men who satisfactorily completed a recruit course should immediately go on to a BA course. However, they should not be considered as BA operators until having completed 6 months service on an operational station.

The History of BA - 1975-1977

The Joint Committee on Fire Brigade Operations met on several occasions to discuss the amendments of the procedures for the operational use of BA and, as a result of recommendations and matters arising in the light of experience since the original procedures were recommended for adoption, a number of recommendations were forthcoming in the form of:-

DEAR CHIEF FIRE OFFICER LETTER 54/1976 outlining the proposed new procedures.
FIRE SERVICE CIRCULAR 9/1977 recommending the adoption of revised procedures which were attached as an appendix. These were later combined into the HOME OFFICE TECHNICAL BULLETIN 2/1977 which updated the procedures for the operational use of BA and included a new section on airline equipment.

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