BY CHRIS WHITBY
In various recent fire training publications, including Fire Engineering, I have seen some great articles on firefighter survival, FAST (firefighter assist and search team) evolutions, SCBA skills, and even one on a technique to prevent a firefighter from losing his gloves as he is masking up at the door. One thing that stands out in these and other articles is that participants in such training sometimes are not wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) and, in some cases, are encouraged to remove it during drills.
In one article, firefighters were conducting firefighter survival training. The accompanying photos show personnel using a personal life rope as they perform a rope bailout maneuver (i.e., exiting a structure from an elevated position using a personal life rope). None of the members shown are wearing SCBA. By omitting SCBA in this training, students missed out on experiencing the physical stress of restricted breathing, added weight, and the limited visibility SCBA affords while performing this difficult task. Also, by not requiring the students to use SCBA with the face piece in place, the mental stress associated with having to remove oneself from a structure in this manner is elevated.
In another article, a fire department conducting firefighter victim removal techniques during FAST training allowed its personnel to participate wearing only turnout pants, helmets, and gloves. In one photo from this article, a lone firefighter, wearing neither turnout gear nor an SCBA, is dragging a brother victim up a staircase. Since the participants were not wearing full PPE (including an SCBA with a donned face piece), these students were unable to experience the actual physical and mental limitations they would face should they have to perform this very labor-intensive task on a live fireground in full gear.
Finally, in another article, the authors detail a procedure stressing the importance of firefighters maintaining control of their gloves while donning an SCBA face piece prior to entering a structure or any other immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) situation. Although I do agree that it is important to maintain control of your gloves, what if we taught our students to become proficient in donning their masks while wearing gloves?
Consider this: What if a member always takes his gloves off prior to removing his face piece regulator? This same member runs out of air while operating in a fire and must perform the emergency procedure of “filter breathing,” which requires the user to remove his face piece regulator and then cover the opening with a gloved hand or cover the opening with the lower portion of his hood. Do you think this member will remember to leave his gloves on as he removes the face piece regulator, keeping him from exposing his hands to the heated elements on the SCBA?
Years ago when I was studying to become a fire service instructor, I was always taught that students will learn more from doing than from hearing. No matter what your teaching venue, it is proven that students retain more information from a hands-on lesson than from a lecture. Humans are by nature creatures of habit: The more we perform a task, the more it becomes second nature, thus requiring less thought and time to perform a given task. For example, when we were children, our parents taught us how to tie our shoes. The more we practiced, the easier it became, thus making it a habit.
Serving as a fire service instructor at the state, county, and municipal levels, I have see this theory proven firsthand. During a recent Firefighter I course at the Rockland County (NY) Fire Training Center, Instructor Mike Healey Sr. and company took the art of the “dress drill” (donning all PPE including SCBA while being timed) to a whole new level. Although we would test our students periodically on this task, in a Firefigher I course, Healey required his students to do a dress drill every night, even if the evening’s class was only a lecture. This taught the recruits to become extremely proficient in donning their PPE and SCBA, making it second nature.
Some skeptics would argue about exposing personnel to extreme conditions such as hot or cold weather; by no means do I advocate a train-until-you-drop environment. But if your students are never trained to know their performance limitations while wearing full PPE, taught the importance of rehab, and trained to stay in tune with their bodies’ physical boundaries, will your students know when to say, “I need a break” on the fireground?
As instructors, we can sit in a classroom and lecture until we’re blue in the face about wearing and being proficient with the proper PPE. But if we require our recruits to actually wear and become dexterous in operating with their PPE and SCBA, it will allow them to focus their attention on a multitude of other tasks required at fire scenes, such as scene safety, building size-up, and tool assignments, just to name a few. Additionally, this will also allow the students to personally gauge their endurance as well as their physical limitations while performing firefighting duties.
I always tell my recruits, “You’ll play like you practiced.” If we allow our recruits to train without all of the tools required, then we are not truly conditioning and training them for the actual stress they will encounter on the fireground. Require and encourage your students to always wear full PPE and also to have the proper tools for the job at hand. Chief Carl Houman, director of fire safety for the Monticello (NY) Fire Department, says, “If you train like crap, you’ll fight fires like crap!” I couldn’t agree more! ■
■ CHRIS WHITBY, a 16-plus-year veteran of the fire service, is a former captain and the current training officer for the Middletown (NY) Fire Department; an adjunct fire instructor for the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, New York; and a fire instructor for the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is completing an associate’s degree in fire science at Empire State College.