Curtis Birt – Keeping Yourself Alive


You’re dispatched to respond to a structure fire. While responding, the speaker cracks, and dispatch says, “There are many calls on this incident reporting a fire!” Are you prepared for what can happen?

As firefighters, we usually don’t plan to become disoriented, lost in the structure, trapped, or injured during a fire. Most of the time, we have no idea of what will happen because of the variables and the sometimes explosive nature of structure fires. Building construction; thermal dynamics; and, yes, our complacency make us targets for the enemy. We all can be vulnerable if we do not train. You go into the structure, an event occurs, and now, you are trapped. What have you done to prepare yourself to stay alive in such a situation?

As we look at some basics, we need to believe that our training and our physical and mental condition will certainly be factors that will determine whether or not we survive.

With your head and body in the game, let’s begin with your quick size-up. The dispatch can be loaded with information for you to consider. Where is the emergency? What is the type of construction? Is it new or old construction, wood or masonry, a combination? What is the approximate size of the building? What is the number of stories? Where are the windows (emergency exits)? All of this is great information for you to collect, and it only takes a few seconds of listening.


You must now enter the structure and go to work. Where do you go in? Which entrance you use—door, window, front, rear, or side–is important. Once inside, you need to look for doors and windows when going down a hallway. Simply closing doors can slow fire spread during an active fire in a structure. When you find a door, note if it was open or closed? Note whether the door swings in or out, right or left? Which way do you search–to the right or to the left? Do you always do your search the same way because of habit? While searching for fire or life, note where the exits are in case you have to establish a Mayday and escape if possible. It is important to note items in a room as you search. Common items in a home, an office, or in a commercial or an industrial structure may assist you in quickly getting oriented. Are you trained in room orientation and search techniques?

As we have learned in basic firefighter training, there are different types of search techniques, and all may not be applicable in all incidents: searching off the line, searching ahead of the line, one-person search, two-person search, and three-person search.

The first thing to do when beginning a search is to call out. Yell in a clear and concise way” “FIRE DEPARTMENT, ANYONE IN HERE?” If a victim is there and able to respond, he will. Listen, listen, listen for a response. Use this technique often.

Since we often take in a hoseline while searching for fire and life, searching off the line can be a great asset. Keep in mind where that hoseline is located throughout the search. You do not always have to be touching the hose. Close proximity works. You need to know where it is and where the nozzle is at all times if you choose this method.

If searching ahead of the hoseline, you need to be sure that the firefighter at the nozzle knows where you are. This method is a more advanced search technique. Since you have no physical contact with the hoseline, you must verbally communicate on a regular basis with the firefighter on the nozzle. You must know where you and they are at all times. When fire conditions rapidly change, the firefighter on the nozzle needs to know where you are so he can protect you. Be sure to have a halligan tool, an ax, or a maul while searching. Use that tool to extend your reach, Should you need to call a Mayday, you may be able to free yourself or break into an area of safety using a tool.

When two or more firefighters are searching, verbal communications is a must. Use the communications sparingly, though. Remember to listen for a response after you call out. While searching with other firefighters, you must consider fire conditions, your location, and the room size. There is no need to be in physical contact with other firefighters searching with you. That drastically slows down progress. Primary searches need to be done rapidly. Remember to stay in communication verbally and to listen for a response to your callout.


Most firefighters are introduced to the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) when they enter the fire service. You need to understand and believe that the SCBA is a life safety tool that may save your life. You must know the difference between a full and an almost full canister and how much time an additional 300 pounds per square inch (PSI) will provide? Drilling on a regular basis with your SCBA is essential. A rule of thumb has been that the air supply in the SCBA will last approximately one minute per 100 psi in the cylinder; 300 psi may last three minutes. However, there are many variables to consider; the firefighter’s age, weight, and physical and mental condition are just a few.

The way you wear your SCBA may determine if you will becomes trapped. Loose straps can contribute to entrapment or may catch on debris during an emergency. Through drilling, you can become proficient in donning and doffing the SCBA in low-profile situations.

SCBA training begins with learning the parts of your SCBA: harness, personal alert safety system (PASS), cylinder, low-pressure hose, regulator, and by-pass.

Harness. Every SCBA, regardless of make or model, has a harness. Its main components are the shoulder and waist straps. When wearing the SCBA properly, the shoulder straps need to be tightened so that the SCBA is not flopping around. The waist strap needs to be buckled and the belt tightened. Tightening the waist strap transfers the weight of the pack from the shoulders to the hips, which allows you to move around without restricting your shoulders.

PASS. It is vital that you know where the PASS is located on the SCBA and how to get to it in an emergent situation. Whether to activate the PASS first or to call the Mayday first has been a subject of some debate. If you can, call the Mayday first. This is solely for communication purposes. You must be able to quickly access the PASS in an emergency—whenever you are in or think you are in an emergency situation such as entrapment or being lost.

Cylinder. There are many types of SCBA cylinders, but all have the same components: valve, handle, gauge, and body. You must perform an emergency check whenever you check out or drill. The examination must include air pressure: Ensure that the air pressure on the cylinder gauge is the same as that on the harness gauge. Check the regulator by-pass to ensure it is functioning properly. Ensure that the PASS functions in all three modes: normal, pre-alarm, and emergency.

As you work at a fire, pay attention to your air consumption. Consider your SCBA as a piece of life safety equipment. If you continuously drill in its proper use and if you are in good mental and physical condition, the air consumption can be slowed down to possibly last longer than normal. Some commonly used techniques to slow down air consumption include the following:

• Breathe in and out slowly and deeply, counting your breaths. For example, breathe five seconds in, five seconds out. (One breathing cycle = 10 seconds = six breaths per minute)

• Try to “sip” air from the regulator. Imagine that your regulator is a straw in a soda can; draw the air into your lungs slowly.

• The best thing you can do to improve your air consumption is to slow down. Slow everything down; then slow down some more.

If and when the air runs out, you need to know what to do. Buddy breathing techniques and breathing into your turnout coat sleeve to filter the impurities are just a few methods. The key is to have your head in the game and be trained and prepared for the situation.


Call a Mayday whenever you feel something is wrong and you may need to be rescued. A few examples of potential Mayday situations include the following:

• when entangled, pinned, or stuck.

• falling through the roof or floor.

• a collapse that blocks your exit.

• becoming disoriented or separated.

• unable to find any exit (door or window).

• The low-air alarm sounds and no exit is noted.

• Fire conditions change to where you feel a flashover or a backdraft will occur.

• personal protective equipment failures.

• an injury or medical emergency occurs while in the immediately dangerous to life or health atmosphere.

• a gut feeling that something is not right and you cannot remove yourself from that situation.

You must know what equipment you have and its proper uses. Use the radio to call a Mayday whenever possible. If you have no radio, your only option is to ask for help using the SCBA face piece.

Keep your Mayday message short and simple: Who is having the problem?  (radio ID on the fireground); What problem are you experiencing? Where are you in the structure or on the fireground? This information is enough to get the incident commander working to get the Mayday handled.

To call a Mayday, follow your department’s standard operating procedures, or call out “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY.” Then, do the following:

• Give Who, What, Where report.

• Activate your PASS device.

• Orient yourself.

• Communicate with your crew, the rapid intervention team, or Command.

• Use the CAN report (Conditions, Actions, Needs).

• Solve the problem.


Are you prepared for the Mayday? First, call out to the down firefighter: “Fire department. Anybody in here?”  Listen, listen, listen for a response. Listen for the PASS alarm, yelling, breathing, or pounding sounds. You may need to search with or without a hoseline. If one is in place, use it. When you find the down firefighter, if the PASS is activated, shut it off. Assess the firefighter’s air supply. You may have to provide some. If no air is available, remove the firefighter at once.

Fires are unpredictable and can be volatile and merciless; they may not go according to what you had planned. Through training, drilling, practicing situational awareness, and a knowledge of building construction and thermal dynamics, firefighters prepare to enter a blazing building. However, conditions inside the burning building can drastically change within minutes. Being aware of this may be lifesaving. Smoke, low visibility, lack of oxygen, structural instability, and an unpredictable fireground can overwhelm even the most experienced members of the fire service in an instant.


CURTIS BIRT, a member of the fire service for more than 28 years, is chief of the Lake Cities (TX) Fire Department. A fire academy instructor, he teaches live fire, technical rescue, and firefighter safety and survival. He has been an instructor at FDIC since 1998 and is lead instructor for the H.O.T. “Keeping Yourself Alive” training.