Breathing easy with Semmco

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IFSJ looks at Semmco’s innovative short-term breathing apparatus that is helping get people to safety

The UK’s HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) faces significant challenges in balancing the safeguarding of lives and maintaining order in prisons.

To address these challenges, they have turned to innovative solutions, notably partnering with Semmco Life Protection Systems, a UK manufacturer of short duration breathing apparatus.

In 2023, Semmco was awarded a £10 million contract by HMPPS, highlighting their commitment to improving safety across the prison estates in England and Wales.

Semmco’s HEAD RPE/CSRE escape breathing set has been particularly impactful in transforming the prison service.

Its design is simple, reliable, and unobtrusive, poised to revolutionise emergency responses in UK prisons and potentially in other institutions worldwide.

This marks a crucial advancement towards creating safer and more resilient penal institutions.

Semmco’s General Manager Carl Bennett and Communications Manager Sarah McOnie elaborate on this development in a discussion with IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey, showcasing Semmco’s role in enhancing prison safety.


Founded in 1993, Semmco Life Protection Systems initially focused on testing rather than manufacturing breathing apparatus.

The company accepted various contracts, collaborating with major companies such as British Airways and forming partnerships abroad, like with Langsdale in South Africa.

The journey wasn’t smooth, particularly after the demise of their Langsdale collaborator, which disrupted plans to introduce a chemical oxygen breather for the UK mining industry.

This setback, however, planted the seeds for Semmco’s pursuit of a more efficient, user-friendly breathing apparatus.

McOnie reflects on this pivotal moment, saying: “Stuart had the idea of trying to make a breather that was better because the one that they made was a traditional nose clip and mouthpiece.”

In 1995-96, a crucial development occurred when Semmco received a Smart Award from the government, providing £96,000 for product development.

“It was such a huge amount of money,” McOnie reminisces.

This funding was pivotal in transitioning their concept into a tangible product.

Carl Bennett, Semmco’s General Manager, who joined the company in 1996, speaks about the evolution of their unique product, emphasising Stuart’s vision for a chemical oxygen escape set.

The innovation that distinguished Semmco was their twin generator system.

Bennett describes the development process: “The challenge was really the generator and how to incorporate it with a hood.

We split the generator into two.”

This led to a second Smart Award and the launch of their first 10-minute escape set for the industrial market in 2001.

Another unique feature was the breathing bag positioned around the back of the neck, inspired by travel pillows on long-haul flights, McOnie shares.

Despite their innovative product, Semmco faced challenges in a market dominated by established breathing apparatus players.

They secured contracts with power stations and gained exposure on Tomorrow’s World, which helped the business grow.

However, the long lifespan of their products, up to 12 years in industrial settings, presented a business challenge, as McOnie acknowledges: “You have got to keep finding more and more customers.”

Turning point

In 2006, Semmco’s journey took a significant turn when their Head 10 set was showcased at a trade show, capturing the interest of the Irish and UK prison services.

These services were seeking an alternative to their Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) systems, which were cumbersome, costly to maintain, and demanded extensive training.

The goal was to find a more efficient means for evacuating inmates during cell fires, a task the existing systems struggled with due to high costs and limited usability.

Semmco’s Head 10 Escape set stood out as a viable option, offering simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and wider applicability among prison staff.

After successful trials, the Irish prison service noted several advantages of this new system.

However, existing regulations within Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and breathing apparatus did not allow escape sets to be used for ‘work’ activities, such as rescue operations and firefighting.

A collaborative effort between the Irish and UK prison services and the Health and Safety Executive led to a new specification that aligned with the Head 10.

This specification resulted in a competitive tender process in which Semmco was ultimately chosen, then developing a product that passed rigorous testing in Germany and earned its CE mark.

The product’s impact has been vast: over 6,500 sets are in use across the Irish and UK prison services, with the UK service using and refurbishing about 70 sets weekly.

This success led to the establishment of Semmco Life Protection Systems, focusing on manufacturing these headsets and expanding their range for various industrial applications.

In 2023, Semmco was re-awarded the prison services contract, a testament to their enduring impact and success since their initial contract win in 2006.

The Head 10 Escape Set

The Head 10 Escape set by Semmco represents a significant advancement in the market of breathing apparatus, combining simplicity with ingenious design for safety and ease of use.

Bennett, detailing the product’s features, emphasised its compact nature: “Everything is on the hood.

You’re not carrying anything with you – no cylinder hanging off the side.

It’s all compact on the hood.”

The device’s design includes a panoramic visor for unobstructed peripheral vision, crucial in escape situations.

It also features a latex neck seal to prevent external atmosphere infiltration.

Bennett explains: “Once you’ve got the hood on, you’re protected from any of the atmosphere that’s around you, that’s not going to come in past the neck seal as long as it’s tight around your neck.”

Operating on a closed circuit, the set uses an oral nasal mask to cover the mouth and nose.

The user’s breath is directed through a flow circuit, with a three-way pore ensuring a closed breathing system.

Bennett describes this process: “It’s your breathing in a closed circuit because you’re breathing from the mask, through the generator, into the reservoir bag.”

A standout feature of the Head 10 Escape set is its ability to convert exhaled carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Using KO2 generators that react to moisture in breath, it scrubs CO2 and generates fresh oxygen.

Bennett notes: “We create far more oxygen than we can actually breathe, the reservoir bag, over time, inflates fully like a balloon.”

An additional safety feature is an integrated alarm system with LEDs and a sounder, alerting users about the remaining time to reach safety.

“It flashes and beeps at two thirds duration,” Bennett notes.

The packaging of the device is crucial for its longevity.

Sealed in an airtight container with dry nitrogen and vacuum-sealed in high-grade foil, it includes a humidity indicator to signal any compromise in packaging integrity.

The Head 10 is designed for refurbishment and reuse, especially in high-use environments like prisons.

“They return them to us, we have to strip the set down completely and replace certain elements to make it new again,” Bennett explains.

The future of Semmco

Looking to the future, Semmco aims to establish itself as a leading expert in the escape market, focusing on creating specialised and intuitive products that enhance safety in emergencies.

Unlike many manufacturers in the breathing apparatus industry who target large-scale markets like long-duration BA and respirators, Semmco has chosen to specialise in the niche escape market, avoiding saturated competition.

McOnie says: “We’re developing and providing products that are of exceptionally high quality, work really well, and give the wearer that extra freedom.”

Semmco’s products are designed for ease of use and simplicity, akin to a fire extinguisher, allowing users to concentrate on escaping hazardous situations.

Currently, the marine sector is a significant focus for Semmco, especially with the launch of the Emergency Escape Breathing Device (EEBD).

This product, intended for single use, offers substantial business opportunities, particularly for ships that need backup sets.

“It’s a slightly different offering, but it’s a huge potential,” says McOnie.

Expanding their reach, Semmco is also targeting water authorities, laboratory industries, and chemical pharmaceutical companies, where their working rescue products are relevant.

Their equipment is particularly suited for confined spaces like vessels, tunnels, labs, or rooms.

Semmco’s goal is to serve industries with health and safety compliance needs, providing efficient and reliable escape solutions.

“If you can get out in 10 minutes, then we’re the solutions,” Bennett adds.

He also notes the advantage of its products in rescue operations, particularly in situations where attempting to help can result in becoming a casualty.

The combination of two of their products can yield highly efficient results in such scenarios.

Drawing from real-world experiences in the prison service and other sectors, Semmco’s product range offers reliable and proven solutions.

These products are designed to provide security and peace of mind, even though they are hoped never to be needed.

As Semmco continues to innovate and explore new markets, it remains committed to delivering high-quality, reliable, and life-saving products.

This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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