BY NAOMI KOWLES
For the Star Journal
Rhinelander firefighters got a technological and safety upgrade this week in the form of new self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA), the “air packs” worn by firefighters that allow them to breathe while working in hazardous atmospheres.
Fire Chief Terry Williams is excited about the upgrade, as he said that much like cellphones, the technology for their previous SCBAs was 15 years old. Cylinders are good for 15 years before expiring, he explained, and their old packs were coming due.
The biggest feature the department was looking for in their new SCBAs was thermal imaging cameras built into the harness, which give them the ability to see where they’re going in dark, smoky environments. The purpose for these is twofold, Williams explained. It enhances the safety of the firefighters, but is also a significant rescue tool for finding victims. Without the cameras, their vision is reduced to near-zero, while with them, firefighters can identify doors, windows, and people through its ability to translate heat levels into identifiable patterns on screen. Ten of the 20 new air packs are equipped with the cameras.
The packs are also equipped with a Personal Alert Safety (PAS) system. “If a firefighter goes down and it detects no movement, the alarm will sound,” Williams explained.
Communication is also greatly improved with the new SCBAs. The old communication device was heavy, obstructed the view, and used a large amount of battery power, Driver Adam Johnson explained. “Everything about that pack is way better,” he said. Firefighter Adam Merrill demonstrated the SCBA electronic communication system, which allows for loud, clear communication while wearing the mask.
“It never was like that,” Williams said about the old communication system. “It was like Darth Vader.”
The air packs are also used in other hazardous atmospheres such as gas leaks or dusty environments. Deputy Chief Jim Plautz estimated that a SCBA is utilized on average at least 10 to 15 times a month.
A few of the older SCBAs will be retained by both the fire department and Nicolet College for training, while the rest will be donated to South America.
Williams said he was able to save about $80,000 by purchasing the demo units they had tested prior to purchase. “It came in right at…our magic bid number, but we got way more bells and whistles than we would have,” he said.