We conducted some RIT training a few years ago. In doing so, we recognized a few problems or concerns. To make a real long story short, I will cite two instances.

1. A few members arrived at the training location with low air bottles connected to their SCBAs. Not only did they arrive with low bottles (which made us question the morning SCBA check), but they entered the training building on air with the same low bottles (which made us question their ability to have survived as long as they have on the job).

2. A few members ran out of air during the training and proceeded to remove their face pieces instead of performing the self-rescue techniques they had been taught. When asked why they did that, they said, “Chief, we did what we do in a house fire if we run out of air. We take off our face pieces and bolt for the door or closest window.” (Bear in mind that the training was conducted in a rather large warehouse.)

Most of the members who went through the training did very well as it related to air management and SCBA work. However, there is still work to do.

Air management is a new concept in the fire service. It is built on the principle that the officer in charge of the crew is responsible for maintaining an awareness of all crew members’ current air supply and how long the crew can remain in the building or area before egress is started. Ideally, egress will be conducted in enough time to ensure all members get outside or to a safe area that is not immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) before any member’s low-air alarm begins to sound.

We are beginning a new round of “hands-on” fireground training. This concept will be introduced to the officers and crews during this training. In Toledo, this process of total implementation is still a few months off; until then, it will be the members’ responsibility to maintain an awareness of how long they can remain safely inside an IDLH atmosphere.

John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of training and fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Executive Advisory Board.

Question: How is your department addressing air management in training and fireground operations?

Phil Jose, captain; Mike Gagliano, captain; Casey Phillips, captain; Steve Bernocco, lieutenant, Seattle (WA) Fire Department

Response: Our department is an air-management department. Our fireground operations and policy require that firefighters follow the Rule of Air Management (ROAM), which says: “Know how much air you have in your cylinder, and manage that air so that you leave the hazard area BEFORE your low-air warning alarm activates.” In short, all firefighters must be out of the fire building before the low-air alarm activates. If a firefighter is in the hazard area when the low-air alarm activates, policy mandates an immediate radio report to the appropriate incident command system (ICS) position that includes the following elements:

  • Identity – Who are you?
  • Status – Are you OK, or do you need help?
  • Location – Where are you?
  • Time to exit – About how long will it take?
  • Point of egress – Where are you coming out?

    Low-air alarm activations are increasingly rare on our fireground. Without the constant sound of the low-air alarm, the rare activation is immediately recognizable throughout the fireground and can be dealt with by the incident commander (IC). If the radio report does not immediately follow the low-air alarm activation, the IC will consider this a “Firefighter Emergency,” and rapid intervention group (RIG) activation may be initiated. In addition, companies within the fire building will often provide immediate support for firefighters with low-air alarms, preventing the need for formal RIG activation.

    This was a big change from our previous operations: Firefighters would remain in the hazard area until low-air warning alarm activation and then begin exiting. Hard lessons demonstrated that this was not a sustainable practice unless we were willing to suffer firefighter fatalities. We don’t like funerals. These hard lessons included the fatality of Brett Tarver in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as three near misses within the Seattle Fire Department. As a result of the recommendations from the Tarver fire and our own near-miss incidents, Seattle decided to make a change. It is unacceptable to allow our regular fire department operations to expose firefighters to the products of combustion. If you do not practice air management, you will expose firefighters to the poisonous products of combustion present in the modern fire environment.

    Training and policy implementation took vision and hard work throughout the chain of command. Changing firefighter behavior is not easy. A dedicated cadre of instructors working diligently to develop and implement air management, combined with visionary leadership at the top of the organization and some regulatory influence, proved to be a winning combination.

    When teaching air management in classroom and hands-on training sessions, we are often asked, “Do you really do this?” The answer is an emphatic YES! Firefighters and company officers DO manage their air. They DO exit the IDLH environment before the low-air alarm activates. They DO radio the IC with their status IMMEDIATELY when they overextend themselves and the low-air alarm activates in the hazard area.

    Changes to our operations include the requirement that each company officer or team leader notify the IC when a member of the team reaches 50 percent of his air volume. With a comprehensive training and operational package, the Seattle Fire Department has greatly increased firefighter safety on the fireground. The implementation of air management has also resulted in unintended benefits. We have seen increases in situational awareness, team coordination, communication, and operational forecasting within the officer corps both inside and outside of the structure because of this practice.

    Air-management techniques are now included in any training exercise conducted within the Seattle Fire Department that includes SCBA. Air management is a skill that is expected from every member of the department. This is the way we do it, all day, and every day. In addition, changes to NFPA 1404, Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training, 2007 ed., which will go into effect January 1, 2007, mandate that fire departments shall have a policy that includes “an individual air-management program.” The standard also includes language requiring the low-air alarm be recognized as an “immediate action item” on the fireground, similar to a Mayday.

    Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
    Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

    Response: In conducting Saving Our Own evolutions and on the fireground, we train on (1) monitoring your own air supply, (2) having an awareness of your “travel time” INTO the building and your “travel time” OUT of the building, (3) not being so focused on the task that you forget about air management, and (4) not overextending yourself in performing that task. All of this is done to prevent our firefighters from getting into trouble and to allow us to continue to use resources to mitigate the incident.

    For incident commanders and officers, our training includes making sure we have enough people on-scene for crew rotation. This will ensure that the work continues with minimal interruption. Whenever possible, we try to stagger the entry time of crews so that everyone in the building or in a particular area does not run out of air at the same time. This also enhances our air bottle exchange and refilling, and rehab as well. In the next year or so, we will be replacing all of our SCBA. We will evaluate the SCBA features that enhance the task of air management for our members.

    Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
    Fire Department of New York

    Response: The standard FDNY air mask is rated for 16 minutes of work time with an additional nine minutes to allow for exiting a toxic atmosphere. In reality, these times can vary greatly depending on the particular firefighter’s physical conditioning and work activity.

    At a hazardous-materials operation, someone is specifically assigned to monitor how long personnel have been using their air. However, in routine fire operations, individual firefighters and officers are expected to maintain an awareness of their air reserves.

    When an individual’s low-air warning device goes off, he is required to immediately notify his officer and leave the contaminated area accompanied by another mask-equipped firefighter. Only the IC or sector chief can determine when mask usage can be discontinued.

    Hands-on training is the most effective means of teaching firefighters to monitor their air use. Starting in recruit school, our personnel are put through difficult training evolutions that give them a sense of how quickly they can go through an air tank.

    In FDNY, this lesson is well ingrained by the time you become a chief. We emphasize operating proactively to ensure that resources are assigned in a timely manner. Practically speaking, the surest air-management system is provided by having fresh personnel available ready to go to work with full mask cylinders.

    Christopher J. Weir, EFO, division chief,
    Port Orange (FL) Department of Fire & Rescue

    Response: Our department, like most career departments that recently purchased SCBAs, is equipped with a portable bypass hose pack assembly to provide “buddy breathing” to assist trapped or injured personnel who have depleted their air to facilitate a safe exit from a hazardous environment. This technique involves constant training to ensure that NFPA 1404 standards are adhered to. In fact, we implemented air-management objectives as one of our “Top 10” safety benchmarks during our Firefighter Safety Stand Downs for 2005 and 2006. In addition, the training benchmark criteria as established by NFPA 1404 were used as part of the practical testing exercise for candidates participating in our fire lieutenant examination process. I am impressed with the air-management techniques employed by our personnel in training and fireground operations.

    It is paramount that we train and maintain a cutting edge when we manage our air as our personnel enter uncontrolled and unpredictable adverse environments. The best way to maintain cutting edge air management is to train, train, evaluate, implement, and train again until we are assured all personnel can manage and maintain good air management in adverse emergency conditions. Every training objective involving PPE/SCBA should include air management and rescue air or “buddy breathing” objectives. The fireground should be a crucial evaluative step or perhaps the ultimate test when we are placed under extreme emergency conditions and in noncontrolled environments to see if those training policies as per NFPA 1404 and other local policies are working at their optimum or if further tweaking of air-management policies or standards is needed.

    Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
    Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

    Response: On a department training level, we use air management in our company drills. We tie air management in with our SCBA confidence drills conducted several times a year. Since air management is relatively new to the department, it has been incorporated into our RIT drills.

    Air management plays a major role when training with our mutual-aid departments. Timed RIT drills in donated single-family structures and large-area search team training drills stress the need for air management. In the L.A.S.T. drills, the rescue team leader monitors the crew’s time inside the structure. This individual essentially becomes the “air management” officer.

    Although it is every member and company officer’s responsibility to be aware of their air on a fireground, this isn’t always the reality of a working incident. In my department, the group supervisors are in charge of monitoring air management for all personnel assigned under their command.

    New ideas are not always easy to sell to members, but by incorporating air management into existing training and fireground operations, we have made the job safer for all concerned.

    Craig H. Shelley, EFO, CFO, MIFireE,
    fire protection advisor,
    Advanced Fire Training Center,
    Saudi Aramaco Fire Protection

    Response: Our department has adopted the United Kingdom system for breathing apparatus entry control. This system uses a “tally” attached to the breathing apparatus on which the employee’s name, badge number, unit, and cylinder pressure are recorded. This information is entered immediately after roll call when the breathing set is checked. When an alarm is received and the wearer will enter the hazardous atmosphere, the tally is removed and given to an entry control officer, who verifies the SCBA wearer’s name and the cylinder pressure. The tally is entered into a slot on the accountability board, where the wearer’s location, assignment, and time in are entered, along with the other team members’ information. Based on the time in and cylinder pressure information, the entry control officer calculates when the warning alarm on the SCBA will activate. This information is entered on the accountability board, and the team is notified by radio when it should be exiting. The team also checks its remaining air while operating by referring to the gauge on their cylinders. This system is used not only at fires but any time the SCBA is used, including drills and training.

    The system may sound difficult to use, but once practiced and used a few times, it is quite simple and will reduce or eliminate firefighters’ running out of air during an incident.

    Mike Stanley, lieutenant,
    Aurora (CO) Fire Department

    Response: The tragic loss of Brett Tarver of the Phoenix Fire Department several years ago made the critical nature of air management abundantly clear to us all. Not only must we train with air management, but we must also adhere to the guidelines put in place for our safety.

    For some time now, our department has had a policy in place for managing air when searching large commercial occupancies: 10 minutes (or a third of the air supply) for search time, 10 minutes for the exit, and the last 10 minutes as a safety factor. The timekeeper (not the IC) monitors the time from the doorway. He gives updates on how much time has been used.

    The timekeeper also communicates when the search team should tie off the search rope and proceed to the exit. If the search team does not return in a timely fashion, the timekeeper notifies the IC of the need for the rapid intervention company. This procedure is routinely practiced.

    Whether in company drills, formal training, or in a review of the policy, company officers and members of the Training Bureau are diligent in imparting this message to everyone from the newest recruit to the most tenured firefighter. This message is crucial: Manage your air!

    Brian Halwachs, assistant chief,
    French Village (IL) Fire Department

    Response: We start in probie training and continue throughout our members’ career to stress the need for continuously evaluating one’s air supply during the initial attack and on an ongoing basis. All safety officers are reminded to make everyone continually aware of their air supply. We hold quarterly SCBA drills that reinforce air management. Some of our members complained that they were tired of air-management drills. I told them to remind me of that when they run out of air at the next large fire. They changed their minds. We stress that they should be aware of their surroundings at all times; managing their air supply is part of that. I also stress that RIT is not rapid and that the best way to get saved is not to get in trouble in the first place. We have a commercial building drill set up and will get to practice air-management principles in a large-scale setting.

    Mitch Brooks, lieutenant,
    Columbus (OH) Division of Fire

    Response: Our department has switched to 45-minute bottles. The thought is that the firefighters will begin exiting when half the bottle has been used (indicated by a yellow light flashing on the Heads-Up display).

    Rick Lasky, chief,
    Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

    Response: Our department looked at this issue several years ago. At present, we do not assign an individual to monitor air management, as some other departments do. It is not a bad idea, but we haven’t moved in that direction yet. We are very aggressive with our SCBA training, however; we attempt to get our personnel to know their capabilities involving use of the SCBA, including learning how to gauge where they will be air time-wise before their alarm goes off. Also, our company officers know which members have lungs like a sparrow and which members are the heavy breathers. This information helps them to realize that when the heavy user in a group is getting low on air it is time for everyone in the group to exit. Different people have different levels of stamina when it comes to air consumption, and many variables affect it.

    Some of the other areas that have helped us follow.

    We have an excellent SCBA maintenance program. The individuals who manage it take it extremely seriously and realize how important it is to our members’ health and safety. All personnel are “fit” tested annually to ensure that the fit is proper and that their face piece is functioning properly.

    We train regularly with our SCBAs and are constantly moving through our replacement program, issuing new packs and replacing old ones. Through repeated training, members become familiar with proper SCBA usage. Our training is realistic and the scenarios ensure that they have a good idea of how much air they used and would use in a real-life situation.

    We bring enough people to the scene whether we need them or not. We would rather send them home than be caught short. The days of going through two to three bottles at a fire are gone for our department. Some departments have to do what they have to do with what they have personnel-wise. We have tried very hard to get away from going through multiple bottles at an incident.

    We try to get all of our personnel to understand the tasks they are assigned at an incident and how much air they will most likely use during those operations.

    For years, I’ve said that the haz-mat crews have had the air-management issue down, at least for those who figure out “real working times” for their entry team members. The entry team leader looks at which member of the team has the lowest amount of air in his bottle and subtracts from that time the alarm time, the approximate decon time, and the travel time to and from the hot zone, to arrive at a time that is close to the team’s “real working time.” Nothing is foolproof or works perfectly every time, so we still need to pay attention even when we employ such systems. Anything we can do to monitor our people when it comes to air management at an incident is paramount, but we must remember that a lot of it goes back to the training we do and the quality of the drills we perform.

    Recognizing that our SCBA is probably the most important piece of equipment at an incident should help all to realize the need for good SCBA training.

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