Buddy Breathing

Maybe I’m making this more complicated than I should. Or maybe I’m really onto something that we as a fire service must look at. I don’t know. But I’m concerned about the direction of a very basic fireground skill I taught my first recruit class about 20 years ago-40 hours of SCBA and search techniques. We had low-pressure, positive pressure MSA systems back then. Each class was taught several methods of buddy breathing. In fact, to pass my section of the course, each student had to buddy breathe with me inside the burn building. I taught several methods of buddy breathing. They could place their corrugated breathing tube into my facepiece; we could alternate sticking our breathing tubes into the regulator quick-connect, or we could pass the facepiece of the “good” SCBA back and forth. At the very end of the live burn, I would have them put their breathing tube down their coat and crawl out with me. But, as I said, that was almost 20 years ago.

About five years ago, we purchased new SCBAs and began to drill with them. The SCBA came with a buddy breathing connection. As crews were “in-serviced” on the new SCBA, a problem developed. Members began to experience trouble making the connections in “blacked-out” conditions. Who would connect? Who would let the other party make the connection? People were taking off gloves and experiencing trouble before the connection was complete. After the connection was made, some members experienced difficulty crawling while tethered to another firefighter. All in all, this wasn’t a smooth transition.

The Training Bureau at that time contacted some people in other departments, and we learned a startling thing: Other departments were experiencing the same problems.

Today, we have no approved method of buddy breathing. In fact, no federal or state regulatory agency of which I am aware sanctions buddy breathing. NFPA 1500, Fire Department Safety and Health Program-1997, states, “Virtually all buddy breathing procedures require compromising the rescuer’s SCBA and, for that reason, cannot be condoned.” Our state International Association of Fire Fighters affiliate disavows buddy breathing. Even after reading the fine print in the SCBA owner’s manual, buddy breathing is not sanctioned: “The SCBA is approved by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)/National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH) without interconnecting two users to one apparatus. NIOSH does not certify buddy breathers. Therefore, the attachment of the receiver’s regulator to the donor’s apparatus voids the NIOSH/MSHA approval for both apparatus.” (In my mind, the approval of the units is voided if the buddy system is used.) In discussions, I was told that there are entities out there that advocate waiting until your partner “passes out” from lack of air and then dragging him out!

We teach recruits about “low-air” emergencies and self-rescue techniques. That’s it! We use a “transfill” connection. We also have a buddy breather we purchased but don’t use. Life was simpler 20 years ago. Many battalion chiefs in my department mandate drills whereby crews develop “a plan,” sanctioned or unsanctioned by the department, for the time a partner’s SCBA may fail. Until all this is worked out and someone develops something with which the rule and standards writers can live (other than waiting until your partner passes out and then dragging him out), departments should have a plan!

My hope is that someone with a few more “things” on their collar or a lot more political clout reads this article and understands that we have a problem and that what is currently occurring is not acceptable. Someone must develop a safe and easy method that effectively allows two firefighters to exit a structure when one or both of them are having problems with their SCBAs.

John (Skip) Coleman, deputy chief of training and EMS, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Pennwell Publishing, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Committee.

Question: What is your department’s position concerning buddy breathing? What are your members taught about it?

Steve Kreis, assistant chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: We began using buddy breathing/quick-fill devices in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Since that time, we have not experienced any significant problems with the equipment required to perform the task. We also carry a transfill device in each of our rapid intervention crew (RIC) bags.

It is very important to have this discussion because it’s a really bad day for a firefighter when he must use this skill. Our training philosophy on this topic is fairly simple: 75 percent of our training must be focused on how to avoid ever getting into a position where buddy breathing or transfilling of SCBAs is required. The other 25 percent of our training time is dedicated to the manipulative skills essential for performing this complex procedure.

On that really bad day when we need to actually use this procedure, conditions will be at their worst. Visibility will be zero, it will be hot, emotions may be running high, and we will need to do it with our gloves on. Members must be proficient in the skills required to perform this operation successfully in these miserable conditions. These skills must be practiced regularly.

Standard operating procedures and training lesson plans must be developed and used for teaching and training on the buddy breathing procedure to maintain a high level of consistency in the programs. Again, the goal must be to never get into a position where these skills will be needed.

A critical fireground factor that many times we fail to consider or significantly discount is the importance of air management. Incident commanders, sector officers, company officers, and firefighters must consider air management and its impact on operations at emergency scenes. Couple the concept of air management with a residential structural firefighting mentality (where most of the time we can get out of the building safely if we run out of air), and you can see that we are setting ourselves up for a huge sucker punch on large commercial structure fires if we fail to consider the impact of air management in these operations.

Don’t let poor air management practices make you part of the problem or the problem. Consider that if it takes half of your air to get in, it may take half of your air to get out (safely). Firefighters’ inability to manage their air will not only ruin their day, but it will force other firefighters to risk their lives to rescue them. It takes a long time, and it’s a lot harder to rescue one of us than to rescue a civilian. As a firefighter, if you think you are in trouble, you probably are. Don’t wait until your PASS device quits working before you tell somebody you are in trouble.

We have felt for many years that SCBAs should include some type of buddy breathing/quick-fill or transfill device. Clearly, it is one more tool in our “toolbox” to help us in the dangerous situations we face daily. But, the goal for this concept is to never use it. It is a complex technique that, when needed, must be done in the worst of conditions.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Seattle (WA) Fire Department

Response: For more than 12 years, the Seattle Fire Department has been using self-contained breathing apparatus, which utilizes a quick-fill adapter. We have been relying on the quick-fill feature to resolve low-air emergencies. Our firefighters have been trained to get the transfer hose out, make the connections based on feel, and transfer air to a partner or “buddy” in an emergency. We provide this type of training in recruit school, and officers conduct these drills at the company level on a regular basis.

We recently replaced our entire inventory of self-contained breathing apparatus. After exploring several options and conducting a benefit analysis, the department chose to continue with the same manufacturer for several key reasons and purchased a newer model of its self-contained breathing apparatus. The new model has an improved backpack, a more compact air cylinder, and a mask-mounted regulator.

Before we used mask-mounted regulators, our department used SCBA with a low-pressure hose from the facepiece to a hip-mounted regulator. Old-time firefighters practiced buddy breathing techniques that included sharing air from one regulator through the low-pressure hose or even inserting the low-pressure hose into the side of the facepiece of the member in trouble. Although these methods were not recommended by any manufacturer, they did offer the firefighter in trouble a chance for survival. Now, with mask-mounted regulators, using low-pressure hoses in this manner is not an option, so there is a stronger reliance on the quick-fill adapter to resolve low-air emergencies. Additionally, we are continuing to refine or develop new techniques for firefighter survival breathing.

During the past three years, we have dedicated much of our training time to firefighter survival and rescue. This includes teaching firefighters to be constantly aware of their air supply and protecting firefighters who are trapped and helping them to safety. We have been training with an emergency airpack that includes basic cutting tools, a one-hour air cylinder, an air-transfer hose, a regulator, and a spare facepiece. The emergency airpack provides a better option than sharing the partner’s remaining air with transfer hose or by buddy breathing. This type of training leads firefighters to think about bringing more air to a fellow firefighter who has a low-air emergency or who is trapped.

Jeff Toepper,
Lieutenant/Training Division,
Lisle-Woodridge (IL) Fire District

Response: Back in 1997, we upgraded all of our airpacks with the emergency buddy breathing system (EBBS). We regularly train with it to stay proficient in its use. The concept is good; however, the more we trained with it, the more we believed it was not an efficient process.

We are in the process of systematically replacing all self-contained breathing apparatus and are purchasing new packs. We did a lot of research concerning the buddy breathing option as we prepared for our purchase. We surveyed several departments and received many different answers, ranging from being in favor of the EBBS to throwing it out the window. One department used it strictly as a RIT function. Less than 5 percent of our members had a favorable opinion of the EBBS system.

Aside from all the “standards,” we had to choose what is best for us. My thinking goes back to keeping the airpack as simple as possible. Trying to make the EBBS connection in a hostile environment is extremely difficult at best. In addition, having a disconnect in the low-pressure hose provides another place for failure. IFSTA Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus discusses two other types of emergency breathing in addition to a factory-installed system. One is using a common regulator. Did you ever try this method under real smoke conditions? Coordinating breathing and moving together is nearly impossible. The other method discussed is low-pressure hose to facepiece. We have been training with a modified version of this type of emergency breathing.

Using a three-foot piece of 1/2-inch-diameter clear plastic hose obtained from the local hardware store, the member supplying the air inserts one end of the hose into his facepiece, near the cheek. The bypass can also be turned on to provide additional flow. The firefighter needing air inserts the other end of the hose into his facepiece, also near the cheek. The two members can then exit to safety. This method provides an ample amount of air to the firefighter in need. I believe this method is easier to get in place and working under adverse conditions. It also eliminates extra hoses on the harness and being tethered to your partner with a hard line.

The bottom line is to know your options, be constantly aware of your surroundings, and always know where the exits are-including the ones you can make for yourself. A RIT with a complete SCBA may be the best way to provide auxiliary air for any length of time. We opted not to get the EBBS system on our new SCBAs. This decision was not made lightly. Although the concept is good, we do not believe the emergency buddy breathing system is very practical.

Frank C. Schaper, chief,
St. Charles (MO) Fire Department

Response: Our department has trained in this concept but would use it only in an extreme emergency-if then. I have been in enough hot situations during my career that I can question its value. During a rescue, we plan to use a complete SCBA for the victim. All of this is easier said than done. Who carries an extra SCBA while doing search and rescue? We would be better served by maintaining our breathing equipment, using it properly, and listening to our warning devices when on air. What we should be teaching our firefighters is how not to overextend themselves while inside a burning structure.

Leigh Hollins, battalion chief,
Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue

Response: We are more fortunate than most departments. Our fire commissioners are very supportive of our equipment needs, and we have all state-of-the-art equipment, from hand tools to thermal imaging cameras to SCBAs to new engines. Therefore, all our SCBAs are outfitted with buddy breathing capabilities.

We purchased all new SCBAs two years ago. We included the fitting required to outfit the units with an emergency breathing safety system (EBSS). Last year we completed the upgrade by adding the other components of the EBSS.

While researching several brands of SCBAs, we became aware of the various EBSS/EEBSS systems available (using EBSS as a generic abbreviation for such “buddy breathing” systems). We compared two types. One system offered a quick-fill fitting, which allows several variations of the normal cylinder-fill operation; the other offered a true buddy breathing capability.

The quick-fill system allows the following options to be employed:

  • Two SCBA packs (cylinders) could be “linked” together, allowing a low or empty cylinder to be quick-filled from a cylinder with a higher pressure. The idea is that firefighters in trouble or trapped could receive air into their cylinders while the cylinder was still in use, on their back (transfilling). In effect, they would be “equalizing” the pressures in the two cylinders. This would provide a somewhat renewed air supply for the low-pressure SCBA cylinder without having to remove the mask; when the transfill is completed, the two firefighters would not be tethered.
  • The cylinder can be quick filled from a cascade or compressor while the cylinder is still on the user’s back.
  • The system can be used to supply breathing air to an SCBA from a remote cascade or other compressed air source, allowing extended time air supplies and “umbilical” operation.

It should be noted that the manufacturer’s literature for the quick-fill system cautions about what could happen if this system were used with a certain type of cylinder: “An unexpected loss of air through the pressure-relief valve will result.” The above system is advertised as “NIOSH approved.”

The second EBSS we compared allowed a buddy breathing feature. A “spare” fitting is supplied on the shoulder strap where a “buddy” can plug in his air supply line, after disconnecting it from his own supply, which may be low, empty, or malfunctioning.

This situation tethers one firefighter to the other and allows both firefighters to breath off one cylinder. Extension hose kits can be used to allow a greater distance between tethered firefighters or to get air to a firefighter who may be trapped under debris, out of reach of the short hose available on the buddy’s SCBA.

There are several “use options” with the buddy breathing EBSS; if a separate SCBA were brought in to “supply” the low/empty/ malfunctioning unit, the firefighters would not be tethered but would have to either change out into the other SCBA or tote it with them. Neither situation is ideal; however, it sure beats having no air.

With all this information in mind, our department’s position is that such manufacturer options, whether approved by a third party or not, offer life-saving options to our firefighters, who would otherwise not have them. Therefore, as evidenced by our recent purchase of new SCBA with such features, we support these features.

Concerning what our members are taught about buddy breathing, our firefighters train extensively and recently completed several modules on firefighter survival and buddy breathing. This included the use of EBSS/ buddy breathing while training in a large, open commercial building and a theater complex. This training, combined with past “get out alive” drills, further justified our decision to outfit all our SCBAs with such emergency breathing systems.

Larry Anderson, deputy chief,
Dallas (TX) Fire-Rescue

Response: We do not teach or advocate buddy breathing. Our SCBAs are not equipped with adapters to allow more than one firefighter to breath from an air bottle. We prefer to have additional SCBAs available for the RIC team to carry in with them. Air management is one of the most critical functions that must be accomplished on the fireground. Establishing a time line and monitoring elapsed time on air are crucial to safe operations.

Bob Oliphant, lieutenant,
Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety

Response: Our department purchased new SCBA equipment approximately three years ago. Virtually everything we looked at and evaluated came with a buddy breathing system. It was pretty clear that it was a big selling point for the manufacturers and was included on all the models designed for firefighting in contrast with units used for industrial purposes.

Our old equipment had no provisions for buddy breathing. The only options had the SCBA unit failed were to stick the facepiece hose inside a turnout coat or under the seal of another person’s facepiece. The ability to connect directly to another person’s air supply seemed like a big improvement and a much safer option in an emergency. The fact that buddy breathing was not advocated by any regulatory or standards organization was not a consideration because such organizations are typically slow to respond to improvements.

The SCBAs we eventually purchased included a buddy breathing system. It seemed like a logical improvement in the design of SCBAs and a safety enhancement. So far, no one has had to use buddy breathing. Personnel are instructed that buddy breathing is an emergency procedure that requires them to retreat to an area of safety and that when they are buddy breathing, they are both using the same air supply; therefore, the duration of the air is less than half of what they could normally expect.

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