SMOKE DIVERS PROGRAM: SELF-PRESERVATION THE DRIVING FORCE

SMOKE DIVERS PROGRAM: SELF-PRESERVATION THE DRIVING FORCE

BY NICHOLAS A. DeLia

The present Connecticut Fire Academy`s Smoke Divers Program evolved from the program that began as a special offering at its annual June Fire School week in 1988. This original program, which was held at the New Haven Regional Fire Training Academy, focused primarily on the Academy`s maze trailer (one of the first mobile mazes in the country, it was purchased from Draeger in 1983 and has been modified twice). The initial concept was presented to the maze/SCBA chief instructor that spring as a way to enhance the maze`s ability to build self-confidence with an SCBA and to physically challenge the program`s participants.

The initial proposal involved using the maze in its most difficult configurations and incorporating actions a firefighter might have to take in an actual situation. The initial 10 objectives covered the usual expected self-confidence and training issues. In addition, it included an emphasis on self-preservation and physical stamina. The 10th stated objective was that “50 percent of the class would sleep through lunch on the second day.” Although this objective has never been stressed or met, we have come close over the years.

In the initial program, students attended a short classroom segment to review SCBA use and maintenance and then proceeded outside for the remainder of the program. There, they participated in physical conditioning and stretching exercises and performed the task that would determine whether they were qualified to participate in the program.

To qualify for the original and the current programs, prospective students must don an SCBA within 45 seconds. Starting with it lying on the ground and the bottle closed, they must proceed to a 100-percent ready-to-work dress-out and have the bottle all the way open. The evaluation criterion is not to dress properly but the ability to do a life-saving task under stress and block out all distractions. The best time achieved by a student for this exercise was 21 seconds. This portion of the program usually disqualifies those in the group who failed to read the stipulation in the flyer that students “must have experience and be very comfortable with the use of an scba.” Those who make the cut are broken into groups, and the real fun begins.

In the original program, the maze exercise and fire department agility test practices that had been validated as realistic were used for the physical tasks.

Today, two important things have changed. First, self-preservation is the principal driving force in the program. Firefighter fatality incidents that involved an scba or entrapment are reviewed from the perspective of a potential training application.

Second, while the maze is still a critical element in the present program, it is not the principal one. It is still used in its most challenging configurations, but it has been modified with traps and snares to support the self-preservation concept.

THE PRESENT PROGRAM: CLASSROOM SEGMENT

The program, offered annually at the June School, is two days long. It involves a very short classroom segment; the physical element takes place outdoors. The lecture is devoted solely to self-preservation. Note: We attempt to teach what attendees need to know to survive, but we do not recommend these actions as normal procedures. As an example, we demonstrate how to remove the scba and proceed through a small opening the student created or found, as in the case of a floor collapse. We DO NOT recommend removing the scba as a normal operation (it would be very unsafe for normal operations). However, if you must go through the opening or face certain death, you will need to know how to do this with your gloves on and your eyes closed.

Following are some of the techniques demonstrated in the classroom:

The “low profile” maneuver, adapted from the City of New York (NY) Fire Department, for going from one room to another through the wall studs.

The swim method, developed after the Memphis tragedy, for getting untangled from wires (see “Conquering the Entanglement Hazard,” Training Notebook, May 1996).

Replacing an empty cylinder and completely assembling an scba with the vision obscured.

These ideas were developed by our instructors or borrowed from other instructors after we had searched for solutions.

OUT-OF-CLASSROOM SEGMENT

As in the original program, the field activities start with calisthenics, stretching, and the 45-second drill. From this point on, the class has evolved into the current more task-oriented program. The physical agility portion or challenge is related solely to the tasks being completed.

The first out-of-the-classroom lessons revolve around trapped firefighter scenarios. Students are taught and then practice the first three critical techniques using a training mock-up located at the academy: how to remove their scba to enter a small opening and then reposition the scba; how to use the low-profile maneuver to proceed through an 11-inch gap in the wall; and how to bail out, head-first, down a ground ladder. These three exercises are practiced in a series at the mock-up. The first evolution involving the bailout is done at a low height with a roof ladder at 60 degrees. The second-day bailout is done from the second-floor window of the tower at about 75 degrees. Trainees perform the scba removal and low-profile drills with their vision obscured (protective hood on backward) the second morning.

As mentioned before, we also teach how to swim out of wires. We have gone one step further, however. On the third floor of the tower we have constructed what is known as “The Web,” designed and created by Connecticut Fire Academy Instructor Phil Roche. It is very similar to a spider web. Ropes, cable television wires, telephone wires, clothesline, and whatever else he could find are strung from side to side and across the room. An anchor point in the middle gives it a starburst effect. The Web`s height varies from floor level to three feet with lines at the three-, six-, nine-, 12-, and 18-inch levels. The Web was created to simulate a catastrophic and complete failure of a wire chase or suspended ceiling. The Web is not only physically rigorous, it is also very mentally challenging.

When students have successfully navigated the Web, they have demonstrated the ability to put their breathing, with air conservation as the goal, on auto-pilot and to untangle themselves without panicking. Those who panic, just as in real life, run out of air.

Two other issues addressed involve rescuing a firefighter who is pinned or otherwise caught by something and is running out of air. Students must be able to assemble an scba, all components disconnected, with their eyes closed and gloves on. Should the Firefighter Assistance and Search Team (FAST) find the trapped comrade, it may need to change the firefighter`s bottle. Zero visibility and high temperatures are distinct possibilities for which we prepare them.

The other task involves searching for a lost firefighter who is pinned, has had his air mask knocked off, and has activated his PASS alarm. In a darkened smokehouse in full gear and with their vision again obscured, personnel follow a search line and listen for the PASS alarm. The victim may or may not be by the search rope. When they find the victim, they must silence the PASS alarm and reposition the mask on the trapped person`s face. They then must assess what is trapping the victim and remove the objects or alter the conditions that are causing the victim to be trapped.

AIR CONSUMPTION AND PHYSICAL EXERTION

The physical portion of the program involves various physical tasks that test the participant`s endurance and air/oxygen consumption levels. Our target is air usage of 100 psi per minute. The lowest consumption rate we have had, a marathon runner, was 50 psi per minute.

In addition to the various levels of crawling space that can be used in the maze, it also has an endless ladder and a pull-down weight machine. Those in the Smoke Divers program do some type of warming up before entering the maze. Depending on the difficulty of the maze configuration, it can take 15 to 30 minutes to complete a trip. Several other physical events are taking place at the same time. A few typical events are described below:

High-rise drill. Firefighters in full turnout gear, with their packs and masks in place but disconnected, traverse the drill grounds and carry a spare bottle and flathead ax to the seventh floor of the tower via an exterior stair, touch the door, and return to a chopping area where they connect their masks and chop for five minutes. Air consumption is calculated, and students are assessed for physical stress. (Usually an instructor/paramedic is assigned as part of the instructional team for Smoke Divers.)

212-inch hose hoist. Firefighters in full turnout gear and on air carry a spare bottle and rope to the fifth floor of the tower and lower the rope. The rope is then tied to a 212-inch dry line with nozzle. Each firefighter hoists the line to the upper floor and lowers it, hand over hand, twice. Teams then return to the ground with their spare bottle and rope. Air consumption is calculated, and students are assessed for physical stress.

Snowbound ladder company. A 16-foot roof ladder is tied to a 35-foot extension ladder. Then teams of six to eight people, in full turnout gear and with their packs and masks in place but disconnected, carry the ladders, several hand tools (hooks, axes, and so on), spare bottles, and two power saws around the perimeter of the drill grounds. At the halfway point, personnel switch places and go on air.

Barrel drill. Twenty-three rolls of hose are set up, 15 to 20 feet apart, in a pattern that has three separate lines and then meets a common point. The students, working in teams of two or three, in full turnout gear and with their packs on and masks obscured, attempt to follow the pattern from one side to the other. This evolution emphasizes teamwork, low air consumption, using the senses, and deductive reasoning. It is very easy to lose contact with the pattern. If the firefighter gets lost, he must figure out how to get back to the last contact and start over.

A portion of the Smoke Divers class has also been incorporated into our recruit firefighter program. The recruits are run through the maze/smoke diver activities after they have demonstrated a level of competency with an scba. Recruits participate in 26 separate events over a four-day period during the maze/smoke diver section of the program.

The final activity of the program is the 1,000-psi drill (the majority of our students are using 4,500-psi bottles). All of the students` scbas are drained to the 1,000-psi level. Then the group is challenged to see how long 1,000 pounds of air can last. The math should be simple: 1,000/100 = 10 minutes. Even if we used 1,000/50 = 20 minutes, the average time for our students is 25 to 30 minutes. One young lad, one of these new-age physical types, walked out 53 minutes later. He was not the only person to have such a high time. We routinely have people in the 40- to 50-minute range.

In addition to enhancing the pride of those who have completed the Smoke Divers program, I believe we have had a positive effect on the safety of Connecticut`s firefighters. Our most obvious example came last March when a graduate of the program used the bailout maneuver to escape a room that was lighting up. The firefighter had just assisted in the rescuing of the room`s occupant when conditions began to degrade dramatically. He bailed out head first, his turnout coat smoking, down a 24- foot extension ladder. He eventually returned up the same ladder to mount another attack on the fire.

Credit for the program rests with the director of training, the maze, and the Smoke Divers instructors and training staff for their ideas, commitment, and support. The management team evaluated every idea and evolution the Smoke Divers instructors developed for merit, realism, and safety. As with every program at the Academy, input from instructors and students is the cornerstone of the class. It is our hope that students will never have to use what they have learned in the program. However, if they should have to, they will be ready.



(Left) Trainee executes the “low profile” maneuver, which involves going from one room to another through the wall studs. The maneuver was adapted from the City of New York (NY) Fire Department. (Right) Trainees perform two bailouts in which they go down a ground ladder, head-first. The first bailout is done at a low height with a roof ladder at 60 degrees. The second-day bailout is from the second-floor window of the tower at about 75 degrees. (Photos by Joseph Lacks, deputy fire coordinator, St. Lawrence County, New York.)

NICHOLAS A. DeLIA is the recently appointed fire chief/fire marshal of the City of Groton (CT) Fire Department . From 1993 until his appointment as fire chief, he was the chief instructor of the maze/SCBA program for the Connecticut Fire Academy. He is a nationally certified Fire Officer II.

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