Huh? You mean smoke hoods? Aren't they just for paranoid white-knuckle flyers and airline safety gloom-and-doomsters like Mary Schiavo and Ralph Nader? That's what AVweb's Mike Busch thought, too, until he looked into the subject. Now he doesn't leave home without one, and explains why. His report compares various models, and gives top rating to an inexpensive unit the size of a soda can.
by Mike Busch (firstname.lastname@example.org)IMPORTANT: see this link first (EVACU8 smokehood recalled by Manufacturer)
Alternatives to the EVACU-8 Smoke Mask (subject to product recall)
I've been flying for 35 years, but I must confess that the first time I ever became conscious of personal respiratory protective devices (commonly known as smoke hoods) was in mid-1997 when I read about them in Mary Schiavo's book Flying Blind, Flying Safe.
I'm sure you recall Ms. Schiavo as the former DOT Inspector General (and former beauty queen) who quit her job in 1996 in a blaze of anti-FAA, anti-airline TV sound bites, and then released a book about airline safety calculated to scare the hell out of the public and to exploit their fear about the ValuJet 592 and TWA 800 tragedies. She hawked her book mercilessly on the TV talk-show circuit, and wound up making the cover of Time magazine.
Frankly, I found Schiavo's fast-and-loose treatment of the facts and her safety-at-any-price philosophy to be abhorrent. Even today, when she appears on TV as a so-called aviation safety expert, I involuntarily reach for the remote.
In fairness, I have to give Mary Schiavo credit for first putting smoke hoods on my radar screen. However, since I hated her book and disagreed with almost everything she said and every position she took, I wasn't exactly galvanized into action to run out and buy some smoke hoods for my Cessna 310. I suppose that Schiavo's enthusiastic endorsement of smoke hoods was the kiss of death for me. In any case, I didn't pursue the matter.
My interest in the devices was rekindled (so to speak) more than a year later when I undertook an evaluation of carbon monoxide detectors for inflight use. My article was published by AVweb and generated a great deal of reader interest and feedback. Numerous readers who bought a digital CO detector at my recommendation wrote to ask "What should I do if the thing goes off in flight?" My answer was "Get on the ground, fast," but that was not a terribly satisfying answer. I knew from my investigations into the physiology of CO poisoning that high concentrations of CO (500 PPM or more, as might be experienced in the event of a major exhaust-system failure or a cabin fire) could easily incapacitate a pilot before he or she could land.
My interest in smoke hoods was also heightened by the Swissair 111 crash, which may very well have involved a cockpit fire and crew incapacitation according to preliminary indications. While I was prepared to write off ValuJet 592 as a freak occurrence caused by carriage of illegal hazmat cargo, the Swissair crash had "there but for the grace of God" written all over it. If that sort of thing could happen in a sophisticated wide-body airliner bristling with fire detection and suppression gear, what about my Cessna 310? If my cabin filled with CO or smoke or toxic gases in flight, what's the chance I could maintain control long enough to get down in one piece?
Upon further investigation, I discovered that even if you do manage to land the aircraft, there's a significant possibility of dying on the ground from smoke inhalation before you can get out of the airplane. While this is a particularly serious problem with transport aircraft, it often occurs in general aviation mishaps as well.
As I often do when thinking about safety issues, I took a look at the NTSB database to get some feeling for how often smoke inhalation was a factor in aircraft accidents, both airline and general aviation. (Isn't the Internet great?) It quickly became obvious to me that the availability of protective breathing devices would have been decisive in quite a few high-profile air carrier accidents:
the survivors of the 1991 USAir collision at LAX was David H. Koch of Wichita,
Kansas. Koch is a well-known philanthropist, libertarian activist, and executive
of oil and gas producer Koch Industries, and is estimated by Forbes to
have a personal net worth of $1.8 billion. Koch documented his experience rather
vividly in Recollections of My Survival of an Airplane Crash. Here's an
The cabin lights immediately went out and people began to scream hysterically and rush down the aisle toward the rear of the plane. A few seconds later, the interior of the plane began to fill with intense, heavy black smoke, which was extraordinarily painful to breathe and very toxic. I reached for my suit jacket, but could not find it. My thought was to use it as a face mask to protect my lungs from the smoke. I was on my hands and knees attempting to crawl down the aisle toward the rear of the plane. Several people stampeded over me.
It quickly became pitch black in the cabin from the heavy smoke, in spite of the bright light from the fire on the left side of the plane. I could only make out the vague outlines of people directly in front of me. As I moved down the aisle, I encountered a mob of fighting, frenzied people jamming the aisle. At that point, I stood up on my feet, choking heavily from the smoke, and walked back toward the first class section. My state of mind was objective about the condition I was in. I had a real sense of curiosity about what it would be like to die. ...
To my astonishment, I detected an opening between the [galley service] door and its frame on the right side of about several inches in width. It was possible to see light on the other side. By this time, I was feeling very faint and I later guessed I only had about 15 to 30 seconds of consciousness left. Every breath caused me to convulse and was extremely painful. I put my fingers in the opening and pulled. The door moved somewhat, which enabled me to put my head out and take a deep breath of fresh air. A tremendous feeling of strength came over me and I felt like Superman. I revived somewhat.
With this added energy, I pulled the door more and it moved to the left a couple of feet. This permitted me to step into the doorway and jump to the ground below. I crawled and stumbled away from the plane and ran about 30 yards before stopping. My lungs hurt terribly and I coughed and choked badly for about five minutes before I could breathe normally again.
Not surprisingly, Koch has become a fervent believer in protective breathing devices. He is convinced that most of the victims of the USAir crash would have survived if they'd had protective breathing devices available to them. "I carry one in my briefcase now," he says.
Although occupants of general aviation aircraft are generally a lot closer to the exit, the G.A. accident record is full of deaths caused by breathing toxic smoke and fumes. One of the most famous occurred on August 2, 1979, when New York Yankees catcher and batting champ Thurman Munson was killed while practicing takeoffs and landings at Canton, Ohio, in his newly-acquired Cessna Citation. A low-time pilot, Munson undershot the runway on one landing attempt, and the plane caught fire in the ensuing crash landing. Munson's passengers escaped unharmed, but Munson didn't. The cause of his death was determined to be smoke inhalation.
Here are a few other G.A. accidents of more recent vintage:
The bottom line seems to be that if you wind up inside a burning airplane, you're very likely to be overcome by suffocation and CO poisoning -- literally "drowning in a sea of smoke" -- rather than burning to death. I suppose that's good news, in a morbid sort of way. However, if you had an inexpensive respiratory protective device within reach, you'd be far more likely to find a way to safety or to be rescued.
Fire protection has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Today, virtually every home, hotel room and office has a smoke detector, and CO detectors are rapidly becoming more commonplace. Hotels and commercial buildings are equipped with sprinkler systems. More and more buildings are being constructed with fire-retardant materials. Yet 60,000 people will be seriously injured in fires this year, and 10,000 will die. Approximately 80% of those deaths will be caused by inhalation of toxic smoke and fumes, not by burns. It is smoke, not flame or heat, that kills the vast majority of fire victims. Smoke is laden with a host of lethal toxins, including:
Carbon monoxide (CO) is the major toxin responsible for most fire-related fatalities. It's often called "the silent killer" because it's odorless, colorless, and incredibly deadly. CO is present in virtually all fires, and is lethal in concentrations as low as 0.5% (500 PPM) and incapacitating in even lower concentrations.
The psychology of smoke inhalation is also an important factor. Engulfed in smoke, it's difficult to see, breathe or communicate. People exposed to smoke quickly lose the clear-headedness, mobility and orientation that are vital to a safe escape. Panic-stricken victims often hyperventilate, gulping in massive amounts of toxic smoke and fumes and greatly hastening their demise. Shockingly, the time interval from detection to death can be as little as 60 seconds.
A smoke alarm or CO detector will alert you to the presence of smoke or toxic gas, but it will not provide a passage to safety. If you're more than 30 seconds or so away from an exit, you may not make it without some sort of breathing protection.
When I first heard about smoke hoods, I visualized something akin to a Ziploc freezer bag that goes over your head. Frankly, the idea seemed pretty silly. How long could you breathe with a plastic bag over your head? How long would it take to fog up inside so you couldn't see?
Turns out that most smoke hoods do indeed have a transparent bag that goes over your head, although the good ones are made not from plastic but from Teflon-coated Kapton that provides heat protection to 800°F. The hoods typically have some arrangement for sealing snugly around your neck: drawstrings, elastic, or a neoprene collar. The purpose is primarily to protect your eyes from smoke, and secondarily to protect your face, head and neck from heat.
But the most important part of a personal respiratory protective device isn't the hood. It's the filtration system that filters the air you breathe and prevents toxic gases, fumes and particulates from reaching your lungs. It's in this area that personal respiratory protective devices offered by various vendors differ most significantly.
Virtually all smoke hoods incorporate an activated charcoal filter designed to filter out corrosive fumes such as chlorine and ammonia, acid gases such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen sulfide, and various hydrocarbons, alcohols, and other solvents. Many also include some sort of filter screen designed to block particulate matter.
As mentioned earlier, however, the toxin responsible for most fire-related fatalities is none of these. It's colorless, odorless carbon monoxide. Unfortunately, CO cannot be filtered out by activated charcoal or anything else. But, it can be converted to relatively harmless CO2 through a catalytic process. The best smoke hoods include such a "catalytic converter" that will protect you from CO until the catalyst becomes contaminated. Surprisingly, only two of the five smoke hoods I looked at offered meaningful CO protection. Frankly, I cannot imagine buying a smoke hood that doesn't.
Other key attributes of a good smoke hood are good visibility, compact size, comfort, and reasonable cost. Virtually all of the units come in sealed packages (to protect the filter from contamination prior to use), and have a shelf life of five years.
I evaluated five different smoke hood models, and have listed them below in approximate order of desirability, worst to best.
is a compact, lightweight hood with an integral 360-degree charcoal filter and
a rubber neck seal. It comes folded in a sealed, flat package that will fit in
a briefcase, desk drawer or handbag. The Provita offers no CO protection, so I
can't recommend it. Available from Tecfen Corporation
in Santa Barbara, Calif. Price is $74.95.
is made by Kaptair in Quebec, Canada, and
is similar in concept to the Provita. It has a Kapton hood, a neoprene neck seal,
and a flat two-layer charcoal filter glued onto the hood. Like the Provita, the
Exitair offers no CO protection. It's sold mainly in Canada, and I could not locate
a U.S. distributor for this product.
Essex Plus-10 is a higher-quality flat-pack hood made by Essex Industries in Edwardsville, Ill. Packaged
in a 4.5-by-7-inch sealed foil pouch and weighing about a pound, the unit is small
enough to fit easily in a briefcase or purse. It offers limited CO protection,
but only for a very brief time: three minutes of protection at 2,500 PPM concentration.
The cost is a rather pricey $159.50.
C is manufactured by industrial giant Draeger
in Germany, and distributed in the U.S. by Draeger
USA. The unit offers excellent protection, including CO protection for 15
minutes at 2,500 PPM concentration. The biggest drawbacks of this gas-mask-style
unit are that it is rather large and clumsy to carry around, and provides somewhat
limited peripheral vision. It also has a rather stiff $150.00 price tag.
Naturally, I saved the best for last. To my way of thinking, the EVAC-U8 from Brookdale International Systems Inc. in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, is the hands-down winner among the smoke hoods I evaluated, so I'll discuss it in somewhat greater detail. Not only does the EVAC-U8 have by far the best and most sophisticated filtration system of any personal respiratory protective device I found, but amazingly it also has the lowest retail price: $69.95! Hard to believe, but true.
The EVAC-U8 is packaged in a cylindrical canister approximately the size of a soda can (5.3 by 2.7 inches), and weighs 11 ounces. Usage instructions with graphics are clearly printed on the outside. The red lid of the canister twists off in either direction, whereupon a spring deploys the Teflon-coated Kapton hood (rated to withstand 800°F), drawstrings, rubber mouthpiece, and tethered nose clip. You insert the mouthpiece into your mouth with the gum guard positioned between your lips and gums, and apply the nose clip to ensure that you breathe strictly filtered air through your mouth. Then you place the hood over your head and snug it around your neck by pulling on the red drawstrings.
The EVAC-U8 canister contains a remarkably sophisticated multi-stage chemical catalytic filtration system that includes:
The EVAC-U8 has been tested by Underwriters Laboratories of Canada and by an independent testing lab (Miller-Nelson) to provide 20 to 30 minutes of protection against high concentrations of carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen chloride, acrolein, acrylonitrile, ammonia, sulphur dioxide, chlorine, benzene, formaldehyde, hydriotic acid, methyl amine, ozone, phosgene, styrene, hydrogen sulphide, tetrachloroethylene, thionyl chloride, and (if you misbehave) even tear gas!
The mouthpiece includes a clever check-valve arrangement that allows you to inhale filtered/purified air through the filter, but causes exhaled air to be expelled into the hood. This provides positive pressurization to the hood as you breathe, resulting in an outflow of air at the hood-to-neck interface and preventing smoke and toxic fumes from entering at the base of the hood. It eliminates the need for an airtight rubber or neoprene neck seal, and makes the EVAC-U8 lighter and more comfortable than other hoods. It also creates an air space around your head that protects you from heat.
The base of the canister is a white photoluminescent disc that glows in the dark to make it easy for you to locate the EVAC-U8 in the dark, and to help rescuers find you while you're wearing the hood. Each EVAC-U8 also comes with a white plastic wall bracket that you can mount near your bedside, desk, or in your airplane.
No contest. The Brookdale EVAC-U8 offers everything you'd want in a smoke hood: superior filtration and heat protection, excellent 360-degree visibility, reasonable comfort, compact size, and an excellent price. Frankly, I see no reason to consider any of the other smoke hoods. The Draeger Parat C is the only other one worth considering, and it's much bulkier and more than twice as expensive.
I guess I'll have to grudgingly admit that this is one thing (perhaps the only thing) that Mary Schiavo and I agree about. Much as it pains me to say so, the smoke hood she carries when she flies is the Brookdale EVAC-U8.
Brookdale International does not sell its EVAC-U8 smoke hood directly to end-users, but it is available from a number of dealers in the U.S. and Canada. Aeromedix stocks the EVAC-U8 and sells it online at a substantial discount from the normal $69.95 list price.
Now I know that it's difficult to get excited about a product like a smoke hood. After all, with any luck, it's something you'll never actually have occasion to use. If you buy one, odds are you'll keep it for its full five-year shelf life without ever breaking the seal. On the other hand, for roughly a dollar a month, it's a modest price to pay for peace of mind in airplanes, hotel rooms, and other places where egress might take longer than the time you have without a protective device. It's some of the cheapest life insurance you'll ever find.
One evening as I was researching this report, I happened to be viewing a short videotape that I'd received from Brookdale International Systems that illustrated how to don the EVAC-U8 smoke hood. My wife wandered by at that moment, and the video caught her eye. As the video ended, I explained to Jan that I was thinking about buying a couple of smoke hoods for the airplane.
"What do they cost?" she asked.
"About $70 apiece," I replied.
"Would you please order two of them for me?"
"What for?" I'd been thinking about the devices strictly in an aviation context, and I knew that Jan wasn't exactly a frequent flyer.
"I want one to carry in my purse whenever I stay in a hotel," she explained, "especially a high-rise hotel like the ones we stay at when we go to Las Vegas. The thought of a hotel fire has always terrified me. I'd like another one to give to my mom. She keeps all the doors to her house dead-bolted, and I'm afraid that if she ever had a fire, she'd pass out on the floor before she could unlock a door and get out."
It took me about a millisecond to realize that Jan was exactly right. A smoke hood is not something that should be left in the airplane. What if you have to escape a fire at home, in your office or hotel room? What about when you're on an airliner, bus, train, cruise ship, or elevator? If you buy one, you really ought to carry it in your briefcase, purse, flight case or totebag and keep it handy at all times. Why not? It's certainly small and lightweight enough.
If someone spots you carrying a small green canister with a red lid and asks about it, feel free to give them a copy of this article to read. Or you can just blame the whole thing on Mary.
Mike Busch (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb.
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