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The Proto-men and The Development of Breathing Apparatus


Firefighter in proto set, headquarters yard c. 1930s [Museum of Fire Collection]
Firefighter in proto set, headquarters yard c. 1920s [Museum of Fire Collection]

Up until the 1920s the use of breathing apparatus was limited by the distance dictated by the length of tubing attached to a bellows smoke helmet and the time limit imposed by the self-contained Vajen Baden smoke helmet as such the New South Wales Fire Brigades (NSWFB; now Fire and Rescue NSW , FRNSW) began to look for a type of breathing apparatus that would allow firefighters to move around freely and spend longer periods of time in smoke filled, toxic or oxygen deficient areas.


In 1923 the brigade found the answer with the Siebe Gorman Proto rebreather. This self-contained system consisted of a cylinder of oxygen and a breathing bag containing an absorbent which removed the carbon dioxide from exhaled breath, this was then mixed with a fresh supply of oxygen and reused. The set also involved a mouthpiece through which to breathe, a klaxon horn to call attention, as well as a nose clip and rubber goggles to protect the eyes.


The firefighters who wore rebreathers were also known subsequently due to the name of the device as “Proto-men”. Those who became Proto men were also given such a name because to wear the Proto rebreathers required a specialised qualification. Rebreathers were uncomfortable to wear due to needing to be worn on the front of your person, required constant attention be paid to the airflow pressure and oxygen valve settings, and after use the sets had to be meticulously cleaned. As such, firefighters were required to complete a course of instruction in wearing, dismantling and assembly of Proto before they were qualified to wear rebreathers. Once qualified Proto operators received an additional weekly allowance on top of their wage to recognise their extra skill set. As rebreathers were considered to be a specialised piece of equipment, if they were required at a fire, Proto had to be requested and sent to the fireground along with qualified operators.

Two firefighters being assisted to dress in Proto breathing apparatus at a cold storage fire, 1956 [Museum of Fire Collection]
Two firefighters being assisted to dress in Proto breathing apparatus at a cold storage fire, 1956 [Museum of Fire Collection]

While Proto rebreathers provided the firefighter with independent movement and manufacturers claim of around two hours of clean air, due to the rebreathers weight and the demands of firefighting, the duration was often found to be much shorter. Since the Proto was uncomfortable and heavy to wear, when Siebe Gorman produced the new Salvus line of rebreathers in circa 1950 the NSWFB was quick to purchase and supply the brigade with alternative rebreathers which were much more efficient and easier to use. The Salvus was lighter in weight then the 1923 Proto making it much more ideal for firefighting use, it is also during this generation of the Salvus that the Fire Brigade made the decision to move away from nose clips to using masks such as the Vista Vision, which first occurred in 1964. The Salvus would be in use all the way until 1979.

Firefighter wearing Drager BG 174 breathing apparatus c. 1979-1997 [Museum of Fire Colleciton]
Firefighter wearing Drager BG 174 breathing apparatus c. 1979-1997 [Museum of Fire Colleciton]

It would be in 1979 that the Proto’s and Salvus rebreathers produced by Siebe Gorman would be replaced by the Dräger BG 174. Comparative tests conducted showed that the newer Dräger rebreathers were higher performing in the operational conditions of firefighters. The Dräger worked in much the same way as the Proto and Salvus but with a even lighter weight of 12.8kg it was much more effective in the field. The Dräger was also capable according to the manufacturer to last of double the amount of time as the Proto and Salvus at over 4 hours, although in firefighting conditions this equated more to only 25 minutes of usage. Being enclosed in a compact alloy carrying frame that was worn on the back rather than the front facing Proto’s made the Dräger much more comfortable to wear. The Dräger would continue to be worn until 1997 by firefighters until the introduction of dual cylinder self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) made the need for rebreathers obsolete.

The Proto display at the Museum of Fire
The Proto display at the Museum of Fire

-Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team

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