Illinois Fire Service Institute


Effect of SCBA Design & Fatigue on Balance, Gait and Safety of Movements

In this study we examined how the design of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and fire-fighting induced fatigue impact firefighters balance, gait, and safety of movement. The objective was to better understand and attempt to reduce the two leading causes of fireground injury, overexertion/strain and slips, trips, and falls.

Fireground operations are inherently dangerous, with overexertion/strain and slips, trips, and falls being the two leading causes of injury. 26.5% of fireground injuries are a result of overexertion or strain, conditions which may be accelerated by the fact that firefighting activities can induce near maximal heart rates and elevated core temperatures. The high levels of effort and exertion needed to complete such activities may be made worse by the firefighter's turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

Anecdotal evidence suggests a trend in the Fire Service toward extended duration SCBA (greater than 30-min), which may further increase the physical demand on the firefighter. Further, nearly 23% of fireground injuries are the result of a slip, trip, and fall. These injuries often occur while or following firefighting activities, and may often be a result of the fatigue those activities have induced in the firefighter. Extended duration SCBA are typically heavier and may reduce the time before the firefighter becomes fatigued.

Thirty firefighters were recruited to take part in repeated-measures study to examine the effects self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and duration of work cycle have on physiological strain, balance, gait, and safety of movement. Firefighters completed seven different conditions with various SCBA (30, 45, and 60-minute standard cylindrical SCBA and a low-profile 45-min prototype) and durations of simulated firefighting (one or two bouts) in a heated environmental chamber (117°F (47°C)). Four activities were performed (stair climb, hose advance, secondary search, and overhaul) on two-minute work-rest cycles. Subjects also completed an obstacle course designed to test their gait and functional balance prior to, and immediately after the simulated firefighting activities.

Following firefighting activity firefighters had elevated heart rates and core temperatures. The firefighters also generally performed worse in the obstacle course. The size of the SCBA had a minimal impact on the firefighters, decreasing performance on a Functional Balance Test. The low-profile prototype SCBA impacted the firefighters in a similar manner as the traditional cylindrical SCBA, though firefighters generally took longer to pass through a 16-inch on-center stud space.

When firefighters completed multiple bouts of simulated firefighting activity heart rates and core temperatures were elevated relative to a single bout while the number of repetitions performed during each activity decreased. Performance during the obstacle course was also decreased following a second bout of activity than after a single bout.

Further Links

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Research Questions

Does SCBA size and design (1) impact firefighters ability to complete 1 and 2 bouts of firefighting and (2) effect safety of movement following firefighting activity?

Funding Agency

Department of Homeland Security. United States Fire Administration- Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program: Fire Prevention and Safety Grant.


July 2011 - September 2014

Take Home Points

  1. Smaller SCBA allow for shorter completion times of a functional balance test
  2. A minimum of 20 minutes of rehab should follow all extended fireground activity
  3. Firefighters should always remain aware of their surroundings as PPE and SCBA restrict range of motion
  4. Firefighters should follow an exercise program and a healthy diet
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