Breathing Apparatus: Improving Effectiveness Through Training
Joe Bachtler’s Volunteers Corner
The quality and quantity of breathing apparatus training in the volunteer service varies widely. Training deficiencies in any fireground skill can be potentially dangerous. In breathing apparatus, they can be deadly.
Too frequently, training ends at the familiarization level and development of proficiency is left to the hit-or-miss practice provided by fireground experience. Too frequently, the novice fire fighter is pushed into a “sink or swim” situation that increases the natural fears of the unknown rather than relieving them.
Training should begin with a description of the breathing apparatus, names and functions of all components and the advantages and limitations of the unit(s) employed. Demonstration of the proper method of putting on the apparatus and taking it off should first show the entire procedure. A slow, step-by-step demonstration and description of the process should then be provided during which the students can follow “hands on” and ask questions to clarify any points they do not understand.
Particular attention should be given to practice in wearing the facepiece. For most trainees, this is a new and uncomfortable experience. Complaints that “The mask isn’t working right” or “I can’t breathe” almost always turn out to be the result of claustrophobia or hyperventilation caused by unfamiliarity with wearing the facepiece —a combination of having the face confined and breathing in an artificial situation. Instructors must listen to the student’s breathing rate during this initial training and encourage students to consciously slow down the inhalation/exhalation cycle. A pattern of “breathe in, breathe in again, breathe out,” will help. This routine accomplishes several beneficial objectives: (1) It makes the trainee conscious of the breathing cycle, (2) it forces the trainee to work at pacing the breathing pattern, (3) it slows the pace of breathing and (4) it helps in maintaining a reasonable level of CO2 in the exhaled breath which, in turn, aids in retarding hyperventilation. When students have mastered the donning and doffing of the apparatus and can breathe with relative comfort, training can proceed.
Any standard fireground task can be used to build confidence and familiarity while wearing the breathing apparatus with the facepiece unobstructed. The next phase involves blocking the trainee’s vision by covering the facepiece with masking tape or a nontransparent “bowl cover” which can be made of a circle of black cloth with elastic hemmed into the perimeter, sized to stretch around and behind the facepiece rim. A common obscured vision drill involves requiring the student to follow a charged hose line from the nozzle to the source by crawling along the line, keeping hand contact and proceeding by feeling the area ahead. Obstructions such as chairs and tables can be placed over and under the hose line and the hose can be arranged to cross over itself at one or more points to add to the problem. Teaching points should include the identification of male and female couplings by touch, the necessity to maintain constant contact with the hose line and practice in identifying objects and the surroundings by feel. Instructors must exercise care to assure the safety of students at all times.
At about this point, students should be challenged to the extent that they begin to breathe out the entire tank, either in single or multiple exercises. Instruction should include how to react properly to the low air warning and emergency measures to be taken in the event that they run out of air entirely.
For the next level of proficiency training, many jurisdictions have constructed a breathing apparatus maze in a building or transportable trailer. This type of facility requires the student to follow a predetermined course in total darkness. The maze has no illumination and is frequently painted flat black. Instructor access must be provided to all parts of the maze through doors and/or sliding panels. Instructors follow student progress and can assist with verbal instructions, questions or physical assistance if a student becomes stuck or hopelessly confused or physically unable to continue. Standard obstacles include doors, windows (glazed with plastic or metal panes), diminishing clearance tunnels, ramps, ladders, stairs, simulated rafters and crawling spaces with trap doors leading up, down or to either side. The student leams, again, to “see” with the hands and to exercise care in moving forward in a dark and strange environment.
Trainees can begin to work in smoke buildings or trailers or in any available safe structure that can be filled with smoke. Smoke is usually generated by burning wet straw or wet excelsior in an open steel barrel. This requires an attendant working inside the building, in breathing apparatus, to control and feed the smoke-producing fire. A better method is to construct a simple steel barrel stove (a 30-gallon drum works well) and pipe the smoke into the structure from the outside. This simplifies stoking and, since the fire is removed from the building, it is safer. Maryland uses excelsior exclusively for smoke generation to avoid the possibility of pesticide contamination which could make straw smoke hazardous.
Smoke exercises can include search and rescue, hose line advancement, standpipe operations, utility control (using discarded panel boxes and/or gas meters) or any other fireground task.
The concept of special, in-depth “smoke divers” training was pioneered in Florida and is now regularly offered in a number of states. This type of training is excellent but beyond the scope of this column.
Breathing apparatus training is an area in which our proficiency and safety can be vastly improved with a relatively small expenditure in dollars. Ingenuity, imagination and hard work are the primary required resources. Bob Byrus, former director of the Maryland Fire Service Extension used to admonish his instructors, “Don’t let the ghost of an untrained fire fighter come back to haunt you.” Good advice then. Good advice now.