Am I Truly My Brother’s Keeper or Do I Follow “the Standards”?

By: John “Skip” Coleman

Imagine our surprise a while back when Toledo (OH) Fire-Rescue bought and accepted delivery on new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) only to discover that the newfangled buddy-breathing connection that we spent several hundred dollars on was in essence not worth a plug nickel!

At the time we received our new SCBAs, I was still the operations deputy and just taking the recommendations of our training chief. We were preparing to set up in-service when we learned that no one recognizes, condones, or otherwise advocates buddy breathing.

We just purchased more than 100 new SCBAs with a “trans-fill” system that allows one firefighter to give half of his air supply to a firefighter running low on air or out of air. The manufacturer said not to use it (because of liability) and we could find no agency that advocates buddy breathing.

Well, now what were we going to do? I taught more than 150 recruit firefighters how to buddy breathe between 1984 and 1987-not to mention the students from state fire schools and other fire departments and fire brigades that passed through our academy. We trained using older SCBA with belt-mounted regulators and corrugated breathing tubes. I taught recruits to “pass the facepiece,” place the breathing tube of the firefighter with the bad or no air into the facepiece of the firefighter with good air. And, as a last resort, we taught them to stick the breathing tube inside their fire coats-a tough but viable option. Now with the new mask-mounted regulators (MMR), only one of these options is available–and no one will let you do it!

So, we have SCBA with buddy-breathing devices that we aren’t supposed to use, and the guy who sold it to us says that we shouldn’t use it either. Now what do we do?

Some advocate that a firefighter should wait until his fellow firefighter passes out from hypoxia and then drag him out! Others advocate using the trans-fill exclusively. To me, this creates two problems. One is panic during connection. If you don’t have a plan for such an emergency and the person without air tries to connect, he may be to “excited” to successfully find the connections in a blacked-out environment. If the person with the good air tries to make the connection, the firefighter out of air may try to assist and do more harm than good. Two, if you don’t practice this skill at least monthly (and that may not even be often enough), when it comes time to actually perform this skill, you will never be able to do it–especially with gloves on! Become as proficient in this as you are at putting on your hood!

Here is the bottom line: In my opinion, we have outsmarted ourselves here. I don’t care what plan you have, but make sure you have a plan (and if I’m out of air, I hope your plan isn’t to let me pass out and then drag me out!). I know what I would do if you ran out of air; I also know that the guys from NIOSH and OSHA and everywhere else won’t like it, but at least I have a plan.

John (Skip) Coleman, deputy chief of training and EMS, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.