BY MIKE GAGLIANO, CASEY PHILLIPS, PHIL JOSE, AND STEVE BERNOCCO
Focused and effective air management is an important part of progressive training programs nationwide, and it is clear that the training goals it entails must be applied comprehensively. The Rule Of Air Management (ROAM) is the core of properly managing your air: Know how much air you have in your SCBA, and manage that amount so that you can leave the hazardous environment before your SCBA low-air warning bell begins to ring.
In addition to ROAM, looking at other aspects of safety will assist you before and after you enter the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere. Knowing how much air you have before you enter the hazardous conditions is a key element of the ROAM; accurately estimating your available air after you enter an area is essential to safely completing your assignment, mitigating the emergency, and exiting before the low-air alarm rings.
Photos by Mike Gagliano.
In addition to knowing your preentry air level, other safety elements are equally important-i.e., carrying the proper equipment and knowing your radio assignments. Inattention to these issues has resulted in heartache and tragedy throughout the fire service and is a matter of not addressing items that we can control. Although firefighters confront a multitude of variables in emergencies, it’s the ones they can control and quickly attend to that will dramatically enhance their overall safety-for example, wearing bunker gear properly, being on the appropriate radio channel, and knowing your task assignment. They have been loosely handled by “buddy checks” or some other form of accountability. Unfortunately, these checks usually do not include all of the key elements that are causing firefighter injuries and deaths. Implementing the READY Checks described below will go a long way toward eliminating those problems.
The READY Check is an easy way to remember the key elements to attend to prior to entering a hazardous atmosphere. In the fast-paced environment that is the emergency scene, the quicker we can ensure our personal safety and get on with our attack, the better. The READY Check provides just such a tool and quickly becomes as natural as pulling on your bunker gear or grabbing the irons. It focuses on four key areas of safety that can be disastrous if overlooked: Radios are on and switched to the correct channel, and team members know how to use them correctly and effectively and know to whom they are reporting; Equipment is in place, functioning, and appropriate for the assignment; Air available is known by each member; Duties are known and understood; and Yes! If each of the above is answered affirmatively, you are ready to proceed. If not, address the area of deficiency prior to entering the IDLH environment.
Lack of appropriate radio discipline is a huge problem on the emergency scene. If you need proof, try the following. Run a simple search and rescue drill with your department, making each member responsible for radio reports while engaged in particular tasks. These can be simple progress reports, requests from the incident commander, or Maydays. You will find that many of your firefighters will not be on the right channel, will not know to whom they are to report, and will not even have their radio turned on in the first place. We often overlook this in our training, and it is a dangerous habit to develop.
The “R” in READY Check compels the team leader to pause and verify that members’ radios are turned on and are set to the correct channel for the assignment. The team leader must also verify that each member knows how to communicate clearly and effectively with the radio and to whom he is reporting so critical messages are communicated clearly to the appropriate place (such as Operations or Division Charlie).
Quite often, we get away with sloppiness in this area because some radio transmissions are not critical; a progress report transmitted on the wrong channel can be repeated once the mistake is recognized and fixed. Garbled messages may stem from lack of practice and training in speaking clearly while wearing SCBA; this can be addressed by repeating the messages differently. Radios that are turned off can be turned on when the messages are not critical and the individual is informed of his mistake.
As we will see with each of the areas discussed here, communication problems seem to always arise when things are not going well and when a confluence of the variables we battle come together in deadly ways. The most obvious example is the need to transmit a Mayday. Clearly, if a member is transmitting a Mayday, something has gone dramatically wrong. As you look up from the fiery basement into which you’ve just fallen, the last thing you need to think about is how to change the channel on your radio to summon help. If your partner has just been buried in the collapse of a dropped ceiling, the worst thing you can do for him is to send out a Mayday that goes nowhere because your radio is off or dead. Likewise, the best progress reports in the world are worthless if the firefighter sending them does not know how to use the radio clearly and effectively.
The last element of the Radio segment of the READY Check centers around knowing to whom we are reporting, such as Division One or James Command. As with most things that happen at emergency scenes, each individual’s actions affect everyone else to some degree. A common error on today’s fireground is the transmitting of necessary information to the wrong place, requiring it to be repeated or redirected. Worse, the message is simply not received at all. Our channels are normally swamped with information, especially early in an emergency, and the unnecessary message repetition resulting from unawareness of your radio transmission assignment is undisciplined and avoidable.
As the first part of a READY Check, your team leaders must ensure that team members have turned on their radios, have them switched to the correct channel, know how to use them effectively, and know to whom to transmit messages. The first two items are simple and merely require practice and discipline. The third and forth elements listed will be realized only if you drill your crews in the proper usage of their radios and appropriate ICS. Radios will be used under conditions that require physical exertion and in areas that are noisy and full of distractions. With the advent of such technological advances as voice amplifiers, we need to be certain that our members can get their messages out with the new gadgets and without them (when, not if, they break).
Bringing the wrong tools for the job can undermine the best intentions of an aggressive firefighting team. Ensure that your team members have the equipment necessary to accomplish their task without time-consuming interruptions or dangerous improvisation. This works effectively regardless of whether your department leans toward predetermined assignments or prefers using a more spontaneous approach to the fireground. If you are tasked with pulling ceilings for a ripping attic fire and bring a set of irons and a thermal imaging camera, a highly irritated handline crew will chase you back out to get some pike poles. Conversely, a pike pole in the hands of search teams will be much less effective than a halligan or an ax. Probably the biggest mistake is not bringing any equipment at all.
This lack of fireground discipline usually ends up costing valuable time as crews must retreat to get the equipment they should have brought in the first place. It is also extremely embarrassing, since other crews have to step into the gap and take care of business for the unprepared crew. It is also detrimental to team integrity and personnel accountability, since some crews send single members out to get the required tools and have thus divided and reduced their resources to the detriment of completing the task and maintaining scene safety.
Finally, not having what you need before you enter can be deadly. There have been many tales of trapped or otherwise endangered firefighters who used an ax or a halligan to cut their way out of a potentially deadly situation. That’s going to be extremely difficult if your search team enters with a battle lantern and a buck knife.
In this phase of READY Check, team leaders determine and verify that the equipment necessary for the assignment is in hand prior to entry. Drilling on this can be as simple as holding chalk talks focusing on giving your crews varied assignments and determining what will best help the team be successful (photo 1).
As the cornerstone of an effective air management program, the ROAM dictates that you must know what you’ve got before you go in. We are long past the days when team leaders should feel comfortable winging it in regard to their air supply. If you want to end up as a “close call,” a “last call,” or an “example of what not to do,” then nothing will get you there more quickly than haphazard air management practices.
Knowing your air capacity prior to making entry accomplishes two things that can mean the difference between life and death for your crew. First is the obvious matter of confirming that your equipment is functioning properly. Good daily and weekly checks are usually sufficient to ensure your masks are ready to go. However, malfunctions can occur in your SCBA even though it was thoroughly checked in the morning. Whether it’s from a slow leak, damage during response, or a spontaneous malfunction, we rely much too heavily on our masks to not be sure of them before we enter the IDLH environment.
Second, the team must have the necessary amount of air to accomplish the task it has been assigned. With a simple check prior to entry, verify that each member has a full bottle. Knowing the status of each team member’s air assists the team leader greatly in using the crew to get the most work done while operating safely. It starts the operation off on good air management footing and prompts incremental air level checks as the team proceeds with its task. This is critical, as we discourage the dangerous practice of waiting for our low-air bell to activate before exiting the IDLH atmosphere.
Reserving the last 25 percent of the bottle for true emergencies is a critical component of the ROAM. Starting work with an exact knowledge of what you’ve got in your SCBA enables the team to operate safely while pursuing their particular assignments aggressively to a positive conclusion.
The best way to train on the Air component of the READY Check is to make it mandatory on every run in which you don your SCBAs. Routine false alarms are a great opportunity to engrain the habit of a quick air level check. Prior to entry on the “confirmed false” or single automatic fire alarm, each member of the crew should be required to verify his air prior to entry. Every drill should include some discussion on how air usage will affect the completion of the assignment and team safety (photo 2).
Getting everyone on the same page is often difficult in the fast-paced world of the firefighter. The READY Check expedites this by reminding the team leader to make sure each member knows his assignment and what his individual responsibilities are within the team’s overall goal. Once inside the IDLH environment, it is often difficult to communicate in any specific detail. By establishing duties from the outset, you have given your team a great start to a positive outcome.
A team without clearly defined duties usually ends up with assignments left incomplete, unnecessary turmoil in already confusing situations, and increased risk for the team. When the fireground conditions to which we responded are not getting better and need immediate intervention, the time lost in recovering from an inadequate or faulty start gives more time for the factors working against us to gain the upper hand.
With all that is going on prior to entry, it is essential that team leaders take the necessary time to ensure that every team member has the information needed in regard to what they are expected to do.
So, you are about to make entry on a well-involved house fire and the IC has assigned you primary search on the second floor. Your partner has just finished masking up, and you both begin a quick READY Check:
• Are our radios turned on, are they switched to the correct channel, and do we know to whom we are reporting?
• Do we have the correct equipment, including appropriate PPE for the assignment?
• Do we know our air status, and is it sufficient to make entry?
• Do we know what our assigned task is and the overall objective of the team?
If the answer to all of the above is YES, you have completed the READY Check and are prepared to tackle your assignment.
The “Y” in READY Check is an affirmation that it is OK to proceed (photo 3). If any of the above questions cannot be answered affirmatively, then you must stop and address them before entering the IDLH area. In some instances, you may decide to proceed despite the specific deficiency. If so (and it should be a rare exception), at least you are doing so with full knowledge of the problem. This is in stark contrast to blindly going forward and discovering the problem in an atmosphere or situation where recovery is difficult or impossible.
The goal in all this is to increase safety, enhance effectiveness, and eliminate as many of the variables as possible before we put ourselves in harm’s way. We anticipate some critique directed toward the time it takes to conduct the READY Check. However, with minimal practice, your teams can accomplish most of the READY Check in seconds. It is critical to remember that the areas covered here are not incidentals or negotiable. They are the essential elements that must be in place to safely conduct operations. We sincerely hope that your operations will be safer and more effective by implementing the READY Check. ■
■ MIKE GAGLIANO is a lieutenant with the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, assigned to Engine 16, and a member of the department’s Operational Skills Enhancement Development Team. He has 19 years of fire/crash/rescue experience with the Seattle Fire Department and the United States Air Force.
■ CASEY PHILLIPS is a captain with the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, assigned to Engine 40. He has served 13 of his 18 years in the fire service with the department and is a member of its Operational Skills Enhancement Development Team.
■ PHIL JOSE is a captain and a 17-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, assigned to Ladder 5. He has served as a training officer and is a member of the Operational Skills Enhancement Development Team.
■ STEVE BERNOCCO is a lieutenant and 14-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, assigned to Ladder 10. He has served as a training officer and is a member of the department’s Operational Skills Enhancement Development Team.