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Since its development in the 1930s, submariners have relied on the Oxygen Breathing Apparatus (OBA) to breathe
in smoke-filled environments. With the phasing out of OBAs, submariners are breathing a collective sigh of relief with the new Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA).
Photo of Sailor put on fire equipment
USS Cheyenne Submariners Welcome New Firefighting Gear

USS Cheyenne (SSN-773) is the fourth Pearl Harbor-based submarine to convert to the SCBA new breathing system. Members of the crew have welcomed the change.

“I think SCBAs are wonderful compared to the OBAs,” said Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Jay Batista of Cheyenne’s Auxiliary Division. “They are more convenient and compartment-accessible.”

OBAs are worn on the chest, and that causes problems for submariners crawling to avoid heat in smoke-filled spaces. They are harder to put on and more prone to snagging on shipboard objects than SCBAs. The SCBA’s air cylinders are mounted on a harness and worn on the back, which improves weight distribution and maneuverability. In addition, SCBAs have audible and vibrating low-air alarms.

“SCBAs are more comfortable to wear and take a lot of weight off your shoulders. You can maneuver with a fire hose a lot easier, by using the over the shoulder method,” Batista said. “Also, the OBA has breathing lungs, so if you put the hose under your arm you can puncture the lung,” he said.

“That is the unique part of the SCBA. Instead of running to change out the oxygen-generating canister on your OBA, which takes about 15 minutes, you can recharge the SCBA inside a smoke-filled compartment in less than five,” said Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Tim Schreyer, the Auxiliary Division’s leading petty officer.

There are 14 units onboard, plus 14 extra cylinders, in case refilling cannot be accomplished during an emergency.

Batista explained that the SCBA also has another advantage for use on submarines. “There’s not a lot of space on the boat, and the SCBAs are more accessible and easier to store,” he said. According to Batista, it took 11 days to replace the OBAs because modifications had to be made to the ship to accommodate the new gear. “It took a while because we had to change the high-pressure air pipes and put in recharging stations. We also had to take down all the old OBA lockers to put in new ones, and we did some welding to add brackets for the SCBAs,” he noted.

Schreyer observed that by halfway through the install, the crew had been trained on how to wear and use the new firefighting gear. However, the Auxiliary Division had somewhat more to learn. “We got more training, because we are the ones who will be responsible for the system. We’re going to be the ones performing maintenance on the equipment. We have to clean, disassemble, and repair them. The devices have an eight-year warranty, and some of the parts have a 15-year warranty,” said Schreyer. “It’s easier to perform maintenance on the SCBA, because – unlike the OBA – you don’t have any moving parts that can break, and you don’t have to change out any canisters,” he said.

“To sum it up, it’s convenient and state-of-the art,” Batista concluded. OBAs have been used for a long time – well after civilian firefighters began using SCBAs. Finally, we have them too.”

JO3 Colbert is assigned to COMSUBPAC Public Affairs