Exiting the IDLH environment

We feel compelled to respond to comments by Battalion Chief (Ret.) Chuck Smeby in Letters to the Editor (Fire Engineering, March 2009). Smeby was responding to a letter from Assistant Chief (Ret.) Gary P. Morris relating to air management. Smeby seems to advocate that firefighters operate in the hazard area until their low-air warning alarm activates, whereas Morris advocates firefighters follow the basic premise of air management that they should be out of the hazard area before the low-air warning alarm activates.

Smeby states that when firefighters react to the low-air warning alarm “this is an indication of training success” and that “if the low-air warning is set at a level that does not allow enough time to exit, that is a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard issue.” We agree with him that air management is an NFPA issue.

In 2006, the NFPA issued new training directives related to SCBA in NFPA 1404, Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training, 2006 edition. In this document, the NFPA clearly states that fire departments “shall” have an Air Management Program (AMP) in support of this requirement.

The NFPA recommends that the AMP include three directives: The first is that “Exit from an IDLH [immediately dangerous to life and health] atmosphere should be before consumption of reserve air supply begins.” The standard agrees completely with Morris’ recommendation that firefighters should be out of the IDLH environment before activation of the low-air alarm. Further information on NFPA 1404 and its impact can be found in our book Air Management for the Fire Service (Fire Engineering, 2009) or in our articles published in past issues of Fire Engineering (“Air Management Drill,” September 2008; “The Breath from Hell,” March 2006; “R.E.A.D.Y. Checks and the Rule of Air Management,” June 2005; and “The Point of No Return,” March 2005) or in our Webcast at www.fireengineering.com/.

In making his case, Smeby later states, “The loss of the Phoenix, Arizona, captain is truly tragic; however, one incident should not drive a blanket change in a safety practice for all firefighters.” While Morris cited only the case of Brett Tarver as an example, we know that he is aware of the multitude of events that result in firefighters’ running out of air in the hazard area. While most of these events result only in exposure to toxic chemicals and minor to moderate injuries, there is a large and growing list of out-of-air events that result in career-ending injuries and fatalities on the fireground. A quick review of firefighter fatality reports will reveal multiple out-of-air fatalities and should bring the reader quickly to the most tragic of these events, the loss of nine firefighters at the Super Sofa Store in Charleston, South Carolina.

NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Report 2007-18 clearly supports the need for comprehensive air management training. Here is what the report recommends:

Ensure that firefighters are trained in air management techniques to ensure they receive the maximum benefit from their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

In support of this recommendation, the report states:

In order to comply with NFPA 1404, fire departments and firefighters should follow the Rule of Air Management, which states, “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.” By being aware of these time parameters, firefighters can make educated decisions on the time they can safely spend in IDLH atmospheres. In this incident, the majority of firefighters who entered the main showroom ran out of air. Some of the fire fighters were able to exit. The nine victims are all believed to have run out of air.

Even considering that we disagree with Smeby’s assertion relative to the impact of a single incident on the subject of air management, we must also state that we categorically disagree with this assertion completely. A single fireground tragedy is, and should be, the precursor for major changes in the way the fire service operates. We should learn the lesson that Hackensack (NJ) Ford provided relative to the dangers of truss construction. We should learn the lesson about emergency exiting provided by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; the lesson on prefires and RIT identified after the Mary Pang fire; the lessons about emergency egress, equipment, and training delivered on Black Sunday. The list goes on. To ignore the lessons of a single fireground fatality is disrespectful of the sacrifice and shortsighted. Given the opportunity, history will repeat the lesson. How else would one explain The Station Nightclub fire so many years after the Beverly Hills Supper Club or the Cocoanut Grove fire?

Smeby’s approach to air management as strictly a function of fitness is incomplete. Fitness is but one component used in determining the air consumption rate for each individual as identified in NFPA 1404 A.5.1.7(5). The standard also identifies other factors, including “the size and weight of the individual, work being performed, the environment where the work is being performed, other stressors (e.g., people trapped, difficult access, outside temperatures), type of protective clothing used, and training.” A comprehensive air management program should include all of the “shall” and “should” components identified by the training standard.

In addition, it is important to recognize that the pace of change for the modern fire service demands that active fire service leaders stay current in the application and approaches offered to improve firefighter safety and health. We think this statement from NFPA 1404 says it best: “The use of proper procedures and the dispelling of false notions concerning the use and application of respiratory protection equipment are equally important. The state of the art in today’s firefighting environment demands a commitment by each authority having jurisdiction to ensure maximum acceptance in the use of respiratory protection equipment.”

Battalion Chief Phil Jose
Captain Mike Gagliano
Lieutenant Steve Bernocco
Captain Casey Phillips
Seattle (WA) Fire Department


Base promotions on merit and skills

Editor in Chief Bobby Halton is absolutely correct when he states in “Achieving a Just Fire Service” (Editor’s Opinion, March 2009) that the general public and the judicial system believe that all that is needed to be a good fire officer is a strong back and a weak mind. We in the “profession” know differently. If the courts accept this position, the people of this country should be very concerned about their safety.

It has been said that a properly trained, staffed, and equipped fire department’s attacking and extinguishing a structure fire may represent the most stressful, complex, interdependent, time-sensitive set of tasks found in any work environment.

Firefighters and fire officers of the 21st century are required to perform at all types of emergencies that necessitate many types of skills including, but not limited to, pumping water from an engine, which involves complex hydraulic and friction loss calculations (mathematics/ algebra). The firefighter must understand fire behavior and respond to chemical and hazardous materials emergencies (chemistry); must operate complex rescue tools and aerial ladders (mechanical skills); must be able to read and follow directions and operating procedures and remember them under extreme pressure; must be able to recognize and interpret the signs and symptoms of sudden medical emergencies and relay this information to other medical professionals (vocabulary, reading comprehension, and memory skills); and must get to the correct location of the emergency (map and diagram interpretation skills).

To achieve a just fire service and stop discrimination, promotions must be based on merit and skills only. Firefighters should not be promoted based on nepotism, race, gender, religious beliefs, or political allegiances. To do otherwise creates injustice. A just fire service must provide for the safety of firefighters and the public, our customers. When the public needs help, they are entitled to the best available. When your life is on the line, second best (or worse) may not be good enough. To suggest differently is absurd. It means that we will have fewer qualified lieutenants, captains, and chiefs. To ensure the safety of the public and our firefighters, only the best qualified applicant must be appointed. The only way to stop discrimination is to stop discriminating.

James Duffy
Durham, CT

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