Don’t Hold Your Breath–A Response to “To Buddy Breathe of Not?”

March 28th, 2002

John “Skip” Coleman
PennWell Publications

Re: “To Buddy Breathe or Not?”

I was surprised by the content of John Coleman’s article on “To Buddy Breathe or Not?” (Feb.02). My department recently embarked on the task of evaluating, bidding, and in servicing new breathing apparatus to replace our existing 15 year old units. The primary consideration during the development phase was for the safety and well being of the firefighters who would be wearing the apparatus. With that as the primary focus, the specifications for the new breathing apparatus included lightweight backpack/harness assemblies, voice amplifiers with radio communication interface, integrated PASS alarms, and replacing the 30 minute, low pressure aluminum air cylinders with 60 minute, carbon composite cylinders. The upgrade to the increased air capacity was intended to provide an ample air supply allowing firefighters adequate time to safely exit the structure. (It didn’t seem right to give firefighters 20 minutes of air to get into the structure and then have a low air supply warning alarm sound giving them only 5 to 10 minutes of air supply to get out.) A strong point of entry officer and functional accountability system monitors the firefighter’s working time, limiting exposure to the hostile environments associated with interior structural fire attacks.

One of the other features we decided to equip our breathing apparatus with was an emergency breathing support system (EBSS). This system allows firefighters to share their air supply in the event something happens to one of the breathing units. The connection takes place without interruption of breathing air to either firefighter. Once the connection has been made, the firefighters are instructed and trained to rapidly exit the structure or hazard area. If one of the firefighters is trapped and unable to quickly exit the environment, firefighters can share air until a rapid intervention team (RIT) arrives with a spare bottle to replace the low air cylinder of the trapped firefighter. The air cylinder can be changed also without interruption of breathing air to either firefighter. Obviously, the decision to upgrade to the 60 minute capacity was greatly influenced by this procedure that would be offered as an option for our firefighters. With proper training, this procedure can be accomplished proficiently and provides firefighters with another “tool” for their toolbox. The recent addition of our thermal imaging cameras makes the operation even easier but training is primarily without the aid of the camera.

Whether or not NIOSH, OSHA, or the NFPA sanctions the above operation is of no consequence when the need to supply life-sustaining air to a fellow firefighter arises. The fire service has long been an agency that trains to expect and prepare for the unexpected in hopes we never have to demonstrate our learned skills. Maybe more should be done to develop the concept of “buddy breathing” instead of running from the issue and hiding behind the tiresome cliche of “liability”. Previews of the new breathing apparatus standard hint of heads up displays (HUD) and early warning devices in the name of firefighter safety. Maybe the committee can find time to explore devices and concepts for shared air. Necessity is the “Mother of Invention” and the need to provide a system of supplying air to a firefighter in emergency situations certainly is a necessity. Any agency that disagrees should try holding their breath……forever.

Richard J. Peterson
Fire Chief
Nimishillen Township Fire Department, (OH)

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