SCBA: The Air Management Conundrum

by Michael A. Clark

When I was a young firefighter just getting into this “game of ours,” self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and its regular use was still underused. Part of my initial training consisted of entering a burn building without the benefit of respiratory protection (this done purposely by the instructional staff) for two distinct reasons. One was to give us the rudimentary knowledge and skills to function in an atmosphere where one’s respiratory system was challenged (and compromised) by this exposure and the techniques necessary to function within it (staying low, venting as you advanced, etc.). To our instructional staff it made sense. You weren’t burdened by the extra weight and resistance to movement that the SCBA wearer experienced and the wearer’s ability to communicate was not reduced by the “muffled effects” of wearing the unit’s face piece (this before speaking diaphragms became common place).

The second and most important reason was that when the unit was used the individual wearer didn’t suffer from the “smoke hangover” that was common place when exposed to the early Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) atmosphere, which was under-analyzed at the time. Even our instructors, old “smoke eaters” that they were, realized that the use of these respiratory devices did make a difference to the firefighters who wore them and their post-fire comfort and well-being (remember, “demand type” SCBA was still a relatively new innovation for firefighters). Having recently celebrated my 48th year in the fire service, I can attest to the fact that we are not responding to the same fires that our brave predecessors did. Higher fire loads and greater flashover potential, extreme toxicity and dark, debilitating smoke are included in the “fire menu” of today. The description of today’s structure fires as “confined space-hazardous materials events” hits the nail on the head.

Today’s firefighters are going ever-deeper into the fire-threatened building. The current SCBA standard National Fire Protection Association Standard 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus for Fire and Emergency Services, offers in-face piece air volume readouts, enhanced speaking diaphragms, RIT connections, adjustable low pressure alarms (30-percent level and “common sound”) and just approved a mandatory “buddy breathing” connection.


Regular training has become even more important! The firefighter’s development of “muscle memory” sufficient to allow them to act accordingly under any and all circumstances is paramount. Air management (NFPA 1404, Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training) and the constant evaluation of the environment we are working in should be continually on the SCBA wearer’s mind We are all familiar with a personnel accountability report (PAR) requested at various times to insure accountability (after completed assignments, evacuations, Maydays, etc.). I’ve instituted a Personnel Accountability and Air Report (PAAR-2) during training, initiated by all team/company members working the interior. This technique should be used whenever a team/company completes a function (room search, fire knockdown, etc.) and is anticipating moving to another location. Any individual member having 50 percent or less volume remaining should carefully evaluate any further actions prior to exiting the IDLH atmosphere. Air management cannot be overemphasized. Each individual firefighter should know where they are in the fire building at all times – with no exceptions!

The constant monitoring of the firefighter’s air supply and the volume required to do the job and exit the structure prior to the activation of the low-pressure alarm mechanism should be the goal of every member of the fire department. This should be mandated and incorporated into the departments standard operating procedures (SOPs) and an intense training regimen instituted so that all members are trained to the level required. Remember, we are combat troops operating in a “hostile firefight” and the portable atmosphere device that we carry on our backs must be studied and understood. “Stay safe” till the next time!

MICHAEL CLARK retired as a captain from the Hanover (NH) Fire Department in 2009.  He currently serves as a senior staff instructor with the New Hampshire Fire Academy, an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy, and a Structural Collapse Technician Instructor II with the National Homeland Security FEMA/USAR response system. He has an associates degree in fire protection and is an NFPA Level 4 Instructor.  


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