The Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus
‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ may just be a mere adage to most, but the danger of smoke poses a far more sinister threat for firefighters.
The modern day Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) bears little resemblance to early experimental SCBA prototypes of the late 19th century. While there are some early historical accounts of firefighters breathing through wet beards to combat the threat of smoke inhalation, the earliest record of an apparatus designed for the protection of fire dates back to 1825. Lined with thick asbestos under a wire frame covering the face down to the neck, with perforated holes for the eyes, nose and mouth, the “Apparatus Aldini” did little in the way of mitigating smoke inhalation, however it did prove to be mildly efficient in dissipating heat and protecting the wearer from flames. This innovative protective garment also entailed the trial of protective gear to cover other aspects of the body including a cuirass with brassets, armour for the trunk and thighs, as well as boots and gloves.
Exhibition and testing of the Chevalier Aldini’s prototype occurred in Milan, Pavia, Bologna, and Florence in 1827, and later before the government of Geneva in October 1829 and then the préfet of police and a committee of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris. Aldini demonstrated that a finger enveloped in asbestos and wire gauze could be held in the flame of a spirit lamp or candle for a significant period of time before experiencing discomfort from the heat. In another experiment, a fireman, using the Apparatus Aldini helmet prototype, held his head above a large fire of shavings for a minute without being consumed by flame or smoke. More rigorous experiments to test the full body armour were demonstrated by firefighters with a shield, walking slowly through a large fire without injury.
The Apparatus Aldini represents the first innovative steps towards fire protection and respiratory equipment. Aldini’s design improved over the next decades and was adapted to a fitted mask and cylinder carried on a backpack, which is still evident in today’s SCBAs. In 1863, the patent for this method fell to A. Lacour for his Improved Respiring Apparatus. By the late 1880s, the smoke protector was patented by the Vajen-Bader company. Willis C. Vajen was a hardware salesman and an inventor from Jackson Country, Indiana, who made the acquaintance of William Bader, a piano maker, before perfecting the smoke protector in 1893 with the assistance of Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s Fire Chief.
In early April 1898, the smoke protector helmet arrived in Australia for testing by Superintendent Bear of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Sydney. An article from the Sunday Times titled “The Fireman’s Friend – A Smoke Helmet” reads:
"An American invention, the Vajen-Bader head protector, or fireman's smoke helmet, has been tried by Mr. Superintendent Bear, of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, with satisfactory results. 'A sample only arrived by last mail boat, and was thoroughly tested on Thursday in a room filled with sulphur, cayenne pepper, and straw smoke.
The helmet, as illustrated, is constructed of specially-prepared leather to resist falling debris. There are eye-holes of mica through which the fireman can look around at his work; he can also hear through apertures provided for the ears. An air whistle is affixed to the front in case he wishes to sound an alarm. The air reservoir shown at the rear is filled by a pump, after the style of, a pneumatic bicycle tyre, and holds enough to keep the wearer supplied for an hour, and he can readily regulate it according to circumstances. The weight is not much more, according to a fireman who tried it, than an ordinary helmet, and most of that is borne on the shoulders. Another who tried it in the thick smoke and foul air declared that, 'you could go to sleep in it without inconvenience'.
For the holds of ships, which in cases of fire are generally unapproachable owing to the smoke, it will prove invaluable. Indeed, it is said that the British Admiralty has adopted, it for dockyard and other purposes. For big buildings where certain substances create dense smoke or noxious fumes it will also greatly assist firemen.
Then, again, for coal mines and other disasters, such as that recently at Dudley, it is believed it is the best invention known. The only alteration will, perhaps, be that the air reservoir (which is sufficiently large for ordinary fire purposes) will have to be increased, as the rescuer may need to stay below more than an hour. It is expected that the smoke helmet, which costs L22 8s landed in Sydney, will be adopted by the Government here."
The Vajer-Bader smoke protector proved to be a revolutionary breathing aide, although these early prototypes had many limitations. Distance was dictated by the helmets themselves or the length of tubing attached to bellows. The NSW Fire Brigades sought a more suitable breathing apparatus that would allow firefighters to freely move about and spend longer in smoke-filled or toxic environments. By the early 1920s, the brigades discovered the Siebe Gorman Proto rebreather – a self-contained system with a breathing bag and a cylinder of oxygen. The breathing bag removed the harmful carbon dioxide as it was exhaled, mixing it with fresh oxygen for recycled breathing. Firefighters who wore the rebreathers were known as “Proto Men,” as they required specialised qualifications to use the breathing apparatus.
Whilst the rebreathers provided flexibility and movement for firefighters, the equipment was heavy and uncomfortable, thus Siebe Gorman released a more light-weight model called the Salvus. In the 1950s, the NSW fire brigade purchased a set of the Salvus and various models were used up until 1979. The introduction of the Drager BG 174 in the 1970s replaced the Proto rebreather. Although the BG 174 functioned similarly to its predecessor, the weighed significantly less and provided up to four hours of wear time. By 1997, the BG 174 too was made obsolete with the introduction of the dual cylinder self-contained breathing apparatus. Over the subsequent decades, the design of SCBAs improved vastly and led to the constant refinement of equipment that we see firefighters using today.
In 2018 the Museum of Fire received a grant from Create NSW to create a brand new Breathing Apparatus display. This new exhibit tracks the history of breathing apparatus and is open to the public every day.
-This blog has been compiled by a student from the University of Sydney who is currently completing a Museum Studies Masters Internship with the Museum of Fire.