Research - Breathing Apparatus

The Sun Fire Insurance Office issued ‘smoke masks’ to its firemen in the 1700s. It was only in the late 19th Century that equipment for protecting fire fighters against smoke began to be used more widely. Firemen used to take pride in their ability to take the bad effects of fire and smoke. Sometimes the only precautions they would take would be to ‘wet his beard and take it between his teeth’. This was thought to be a way of filtering smoke.

In the mid 1800s there were many attempts to make breathing apparatus. Most relied on filtering the smoke particles through sponges or wadding soaked with various agents such as glycerine, charcoal or vinegar. Unfortunately these gave no protection against gases like carbon monoxide nor were they of any use in an atmosphere where there was little or no oxygen. There were some weird and wonderful ‘smoke masks’ but very few fire brigades used them.

The next development was the ‘smoke helmet’, which was a means of supplying fresh air to a fireman inside a smoke-filled building. Originally these were just a close fitting hood connected to a length of tubing, which led to an outside filter. Bellows were later fitted to the end of the tube. These hoods were the first kind of breathing apparatus to be adopted generally by fire brigades and by the turn of the century they could be seen in many large towns. In some brigades the air was supplied from a special air-producing fire appliance rather than from bellows.

Fire fighters had to be able to move freely and safely so they needed a self-contained breathing apparatus set. After some early and unsuccessful attempts, comprising literally a bag of air carried on the back which provided only a few minutes air supply – the first practical closed-circuit oxygen set appeared in 1878 produced by Henry A Fleus through Siebe Gorman Ltd.

Within a few years mine rescue services used sets, which had an oxygen cylinder and breathing bag and an absorbent for abstracting the oxygen from exhaled breath. Fire brigades did not use them until the 1920s and 30s when they adopted sets such as the ‘Proto’.

German gas attacks in 1915 brought a revival in respirator design, and the threat of further attacks in the Second World War led to respirators or gas masks becoming available to the general population including babies and children.

After the War, compressed air breathing apparatus was developed which could last from about 20 minutes to almost an hour with improved technology, until oxygen was phased out completely in the 1970s. Modern BA sets incorporate positive-pressure face masks for maximum protection against unsafe atmospheres and chemical products.

Following serious accidents involving loss of life, safety innovations such as guidelines, tallies and warning devices appeared so that today Breathing Apparatus operations are carried out only in accordance with the most stringent procedures. Fire fighters must now wear Breathing Apparatus at almost every incident because of the toxic nature of smoke produced by many modern materials,

Several types of smoke helmets, oxygen and compressed air breathing apparatus, and associated equipment are displayed at the Museum.

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