Manage Your Air, Manage Your Survival

BY CHARLES L. FRENCH JR.

In 2008, the book Air Management for the Fire Service1 written by a group of Seattle firefighters was published. Little did I know what kind of impact this book and its authors would have on my department, training, and attitude concerning self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). It wasn’t until 2011 that I heard of this book, much less gave a second thought to air management and its effects on the fireground. I was like everyone else in the fire service: When my end-of-service time indicator (low-air alarm) activated, then I would think about leaving the interior of the fire building. Now I realize just how erroneous, dangerous, and ignorant this type of thinking can be.

During the fall of 2011, I was assigned to develop company drills for my fire department. This was a huge task. It took me close to six months to complete—developing the curriculum, the presentation, and the hands-on portion for the class as well as managing the logistics involved. I was a new training officer for our department, but I had been involved in training for almost seven years with one of our state’s major training entities. I knew the training I developed had better meet or exceed our members’ expectations and enhance their individual knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA). After kicking around several ideas, my training chief came to me with the air management book in hand and asked, “What do you know about this particular subject?” I told him that I didn’t know much but that I would check it out and see what it was all about. From there, the rest is history.

As I read the air management book, I not only became blatantly aware of numerous issues that plagued me, our department, and our training, but I was also alerted to how large an issue this subject is to the fire service overall. I came to see that we must be better prepared to deal with air management issues on the fireground. We must treat it as a serious topic, not just a training area.

AIR MANAGEMENT

In 2011, 81 line-of-duty firefighter fatalities occurred, a seven percent decrease from the 87 fatalities in 2010. Of those 81 who perished, 28 died while engaged in activities on the fireground. Of those same 28 who gave their lives, one died from running out of air. This unfortunate incident took place on July 28 during a fire in a six-story medical building. Asheville (NC) Fire Department Captain Jeff Bowen died while attempting to attack the seat of the fire within the structure on the top floor. The line-of-duty death (LODD) report listed several contributing factors, but the one that stuck out the most for me was that the air management doctrine was not followed.2

Several recommendations were listed for preventing future occurrences. Some of them included ensuring that firefighters are properly trained in air management principles and out-of-air SCBA emergency operations and that they are performing SCBA repetitive skills on a regular basis.3 Within the decade prior to 2006, the reported air-related deaths caused by asphyxiation were 116. Although those numbers have dropped significantly in the past few years, we continue to have fire-related fatalities surrounding air management issues. This doesn’t even consider the other possible LODDs related to cancer and respiratory deaths. What this told me is that even though air management had been around for several years, there are still areas in the fire service not committed to changing how they conduct air management operations. It also illustrated to me just how important it is to conduct air management training for your fire department members.

On December 31, 2011, an early-morning house fire in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would make my commitment to developing an air management training program more solid than before. Station 19 was the first on scene assigned to fire attack. During the course of the incident while operating inside the structure, Firefighter James O’Neal had an SCBA malfunction; it resulted in a Mayday call. His SCBA stopped delivering sufficient air to his face piece. After struggling to find a safe area to exit the structure, he went into cardiac arrest. Firefighters pulled O’Neal from the structure. He was revived on scene by advanced life support (ALS) personnel. This near-tragic event was a strong indicator that we needed air management training and that the topic we had selected for company drills was right on target.

In the spring of 2012, we conducted our company level drill for air management training after months of work by our entire training staff. We developed a presentation that explained to our personnel why air management is important. We took our members through an air consumption rate course to help them determine their individual breathing rates. Then we put them through a search and rescue course to let them practice efficient search drills using new skills to help minimize air consumption. This training also allowed personnel to practice leaving the structure before their low-air alarm activated. Overall, the training was well received; however, the trained staff and I questioned whether it changed the mindset of the department concerning air management.

The answer became evident during another significant incident that rocked our fire department in 2012. Eight of our firefighters were injured during a backdraft event at an elementary school fire. After the incident, later that day at the hospital, several of the members expressed how the training they had received contributed to their survival. This told the training staff that it had made an impact on the members. However, what mattered most was that all of our members survived this incident, got to go home to their families, and are back on active duty serving our citizens. Remember, you will not rise to the occasion, but you will fall back to your training. This was demonstrated during this near-tragic incident. Do we still have areas to address concerning air management? You bet we do, but we are off in the right direction improving our members and the department a little bit at a time.

TRAINING

For those of you not familiar with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1404, Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training, 4 following is an explanation of the major components affecting the fire service. Basically, the standard spells out that fire departments should have an individual air management program. The 2013 revision of NFPA 1404 has a change in wording that places a stronger emphasis on directives surrounding air management programs. The revised standard uses “shall” instead of “should” in several areas of the updated document. The NFPA also moved the three directives of an individual air management program from the annex to chapter five of the standard. Regardless of the changing standard within any individual air management program, the three directives of NFPA 1404 are as follows:

  • Individuals must exit an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) atmosphere before consumption of the reserve air supply.
  • The low-air alarm is notification that the individual is consuming the reserve air supply.
  • Activation of the low-air alarm is an immediate action item for the individual and the team.

This standard mandates that firefighters must exit IDLH atmospheres before the low-air alarm sounds. If your low-air alarm sounds, it means you are in trouble, you need rapid intervention, and you need to call a Mayday. That’s a huge change in the way most fire departments normally operate on the fireground. To meet the mandates of these standards, firefighters should be trained to follow the “Rules of Air Management” (ROAM), which states you should “know how much air you have in your SCBA and manage that air so that you leave the hazardous environment before your low-air alarm activates.”5

The “Seattle Guys” (Captain Steve Bernocco, Captain Mike Gagliano, Captain Casey Phillips, and Battalion Chief Phil Jose) pioneered this movement to make air management an important factor on the fireground. Now, it is the job of the fire service and its leaders to pick up the ball and run with it, having the overall goal of improving the safety and lives of our fellow firefighters across the country. The Seattle Guys made us aware of the importance of air management along with the mandates of NFPA 1404. Now, we in the fire service must add to this knowledge base, continually improving on the process, embracing the air management concepts, and thus making the fire service better as a whole. Because of the influence of Air Management for the Fire Service, I came up with “Manage Your Air, Manage Your Survival.” This class is another step toward making firefighters aware of how important air management principles are to the fire service.

How important is training to you and your fire department? It’s sad to say, but the fire service has not always been particularly excited about conducting training. Some members feel that once they have completed the basic fire academy, they have everything they will need for the next 25 years. The mindset is, “What they didn’t teach me in the academy experience I will make up for later on.” Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Don’t get me wrong. Experience is a great teacher, but it’s only half of the puzzle. Plus, if you think basic training is all you will need to make it through 25 years of the fire service, think again. Things change, and almost all the skills we learned at the academy are perishable: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Here is an example. Do you remember high school algebra? It would be tough to take an algebra test if you haven’t done algebraic equations within the past 10 to 20 years. What I hope you understand is that the basics of personal protective equipment, SCBA, ladders, hose, ventilation, ropes, tools, and all the other numerous skills we are expected to know we must constantly revisit throughout our careers. Experience is a great teacher, but training must also be incorporated into the mix. Training becomes the foundation that we must build on, and we must maintain that foundation throughout our entire career.

When we talk about training, I like to draw on the comparisons we can find in the military. As a former Marine, one of the most important skill sets instilled in me and enforced by the Marine Corps is, “Every Marine is a rifleman.” It doesn’t matter what your military occupation is—whether it’s artillery, motor pool, grunt, or pastry chef. Every Marine must be a competent rifleman. Every year, Marines are required to qualify with their rifle. This is done so they maintain their proficiency with their battle weaponry, meaning that a Marine will be prepared for battle regardless of position. The same concept should be applied to the fire service: Every firefighter should be an expert with SCBA. This would translate into knowing how everything functions—how it operates, including the bypass and mastery of emergency SCBA operations.

We owe it to the fire service to have a zero-tolerance policy concerning SCBA usage, pushing for better proficiency with our SCBAs. We seemed to have missed the bigger picture with SCBAs. Yes, it is important to don them quickly and correctly; however, it’s just as important to reach a level of mastery knowing the apparatus inside out. Truly being able to hone this skill set should be every firefighter’s goal. This proficiency will enhance our capabilities on the fireground, which is a win-win for the citizens and for our own survivability.

Another area we should look to within our military is how the military trains personnel to perform under pressure. High-intensity training teaches individuals in the military how to function in highly stressful environments. This type of training allows individuals to develop a remarkable skill set for performing effectively under pressure. It allows military personnel to perform under extreme conditions (combat), which is the military’s ultimate goal. Firefighting is comparable to combat in many ways because we’re asking people to put their lives on the line to save lives and property. The fire service as a whole owes its firefighters the preparation they need to function under highly stressful situations. We have always told our fellow firefighters to remain calm in emergency situations, but it’s virtually impossible to remain calm when your body’s response naturally elicits panic. Instead, we should train and encourage our firefighters to learn how to “panic with a purpose.”

Panic with a purpose means you understand that your body’s physiological response is going to try and take over, but you know how to function at an acceptable level for survival. Firefighters need to be put in training situations that simulate panic and then learn how to function effectively while in this simulated panic state.

A good example is Navy aviation rescue swimmers. They are taught how to deal with this through their training programs. Navy swimmers are put into simulated training scenarios that require them to function in what a normal person would consider a highly panicked state. They are put in a helicopter prop that is turned upside down in a pool. During the simulation, the rescue swimmer is seat-belted inside the helicopter prop and given specific parameters within which to perform. Once the signal is given, the student is flipped over underwater and is expected to perform the given task, which must be completed before he can exit the chopper and come to the surface. Students learn how to function in a panic-driven state by controlling their body’s physiological response, hence producing a successful survival outcome.

How do we get to that point with SCBA/air management training? I don’t know or have all the answers, but I’m confident that others in the fire service do. Firefighters should practice mask drills simulating failures such as leaks or cracks along with what to do once these instances occur. Firefighters need to practice how to remove their mask-mounted regulator (MMR) and pull their flashover hood over their face piece as a last-ditch effort to filter smoke. This should not be done only once in a while; it should be a common practice during skills and drills training. Firefighters also need to practice performing this skill with their gloves on because that’s the equipment they will be wearing when these types of emergencies occur. Many drills are conducted with leather work gloves because they are easier to work with than fire gloves, which can feel like oven mitts on a firefighter. This creates a bad habit because firefighters will not be wearing those leather gloves in a fire; they will be wearing those oven mitts. They need to practice with the proper equipment; it’s vital to their survival. Just learning how to function with firefighter gloves on is a skill we need to master until we achieve proficiency. If possible, it would be beneficial to train firefighters in a tear gas chamber so they can learn how to perform these skills without taking in large breaths of gas. Once exposed to tear gas, they, hopefully, will never want to inhale superheated gases in a structure fire.

THE POWER OF HABIT

In his book The Power of Habit,6 Charles Duhigg explores how much habit affects our daily routines. In fact, according to Duhigg, some of the decisions we make are not necessarily based on thought but on our individual habits. Following are analogies I have made between information from the book and the fire service air management issue.

Duhigg became interested in the power of habit while working as a news reporter in Bagdad. He noticed how the U.S. military uses habit to train its personnel to shoot, think, communicate, and operate in the combat zone. The entire military relies on habit not only in its basic training arena but in combat situations as well. During the beginning of the war in Iraq, military commanders began looking at the habits of insurgents. One officer in a small city 90 miles south of Bagdad began applying a habit modification program to crowds. In the city of Kufa, every time a crowd gathered, several hours later, all hell would break loose, resulting in casualties. The officer studied the habits of the crowd; he recognized that food vendors would always show up to feed the hungry mob. Of course, feeding the crowd allowed the crowd members to stay longer during these gatherings. The officer went to the mayor of Kufa and asked if he would stop food vendors from coming to these gatherings. Once this minor habit change was made, the problems with the crowds diminished. The first few times the crowds would gather, but they would get hungry and then go home because no food vendors showed up. By recognizing the habits of the crowd, the officer was able to change the situation by changing the habits of the participants. (6)

Fireground application: Could we video our fire scenes and find good and bad habits present during our operations? It would be interesting to observe fireground scenes of our departments and discover the habits we automatically perform without thinking. I’m sure each of us could find behaviors within our departments that have formed over the years through organizational and cultural habits. We all are aware that habits are learned, meaning that we can change those habits if we know they exist. If your department has bad air management habits on the fireground, change those habits into good air management habits.

Habit Loop

Duhigg describes what he calls the “habit loop.” The brain creates habits through a three-step process, which it uses later to reduce its own workload:

habit loop
  • Cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode signaling which habit to use.
  • Routine, which can be a physical, a mental, or an emotional response.
  • Reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future. (6)

Our brain creates habits, as previously noted, to help reduce its own workload, therefore reducing the stress we experience performing tasks. When you first learn something new, the brain is overloaded, so it creates a system to help reduce the load, eventually forming habits.

Fireground application. Think about the first time you were introduced to an SCBA with all the steps you had to perform to correctly don and operate this piece of equipment. If you were to sit down and write out a step-by-step procedure for correctly donning an SCBA, the steps would fill more than one page. However, if you’ve been in the fire service for a while, putting on your SCBA seems rather simple now. That’s because you have muscle memory or, more correctly, you have formed habits created by your brain to help you complete the task.

Creating air management habits can be done by incorporating this skill set into every drill and response. You must practice air management at even the smallest house fires; if you don’t, you won’t use it at the big or multiple-alarm fires. Air management habits should also be introduced to new firefighters entering the fire service. Firefighters in academies have no problem adapting to air management principles because it’s all they know. The habits are successful from the onset of training.

•••

Air management is no joking matter. We know how dangerous the modern fireground can be with the toxic gases that exist in smoke exposing us to the toxic twins of hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide. The amount of plastics present in the modern residential structure exposes firefighters to a much more dangerous environment than ever before. If you want to survive in the fire service, you must master your SCBA. You must learn to wear your SCBA longer during salvage and overhaul functions. You must learn to work in teams to conserve and manage your air supply, working smarter, not harder. You must change the fireground habits you have developed and move toward an alarm-free fireground, meaning no personal alert safety system or low-air alarm.

Practicing, training, and adhering to the air management mandate are Mayday prevention skills. Mayday is still an important training to have; it’s a skill set worth its weight in gold if you ever need it. However, minimizing the chances of calling a Mayday should always be the ultimate goal. “Manage Your Air, Manage Your Survival” is about the habits we must develop within the fire service to help us decrease firefighter deaths.

Endnotes

1. Bernocco, S., Gagliano, M., Phillips, C., & Jose, P. (2008). Air Management for the Fire Service. Tulsa, OK: Pennwell Publishing.

2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (2012/June). A Career Captain Dies and 9 Fire Fighters Injured in a Multistory Building Fire. Atlanta, GA: NIOSH report. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/.

3. Fire Engineering NIOSH report. (2012/Aug). Report Issued in Death of Asheville (NC) Firefighter. Fire Engineering. Retrieved from http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/2012/08/report-issued-in-death-of-asheville-nc-firefighter.html.

4. National Fire Protection Association 1404. (2013). Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training. Quincy, Mass: NFPA.

5. Gagliano, M., Phillips, C., Jose, P., & Bernocco, S. (2008 / Feb). Is Your Department Complying with the NFPA 1404 Air Management Policy? Fire Engineering. Retrieved from http://www.fireengineering.com.

6. Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

CHARLES L. FRENCH JR. is a 16-year veteran of the Tulsa (OK) Fire Department, where he is a chief officer. He has a master’s degree in fire and emergency management from Oklahoma State University. He was an instructor at FDIC in 2013, has had several articles published in Fire Engineering and Fire Rescue, and was the host of the Webcast “Manage Your Air, Manage Your Survival” (fireengineering.com). He has been a technical rescue and advanced fire behavior instructor since 2006.

Charles L. French Jr. will present “Manage Your Air, Manage Your Survival,” on Wednesday, April 9, 3:30 p.m.-5:15 p.m., at FDIC 2014 in Indianapolis.

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