Over the past 25 years, the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) has become an essential piece of a firefighter’s personal protective equipment and, quite possibly, the single most beneficial piece of safety equipment used by the fire service. This fundamental piece of respiratory protection has proved its usefulness even as the scope of the fire service has broadened. In addition to the SCBA’s use in structural firefighting, it plays an important role in confined space, technical rescue, and hazardous-materials incidents.

Despite the prevalence of this piece of equipment, injuries and fatalities involving fire service personnel reveal a disturbing trend. In confined space emergencies, a leading cause of injury and death to rescuers is the lack of respiratory protection. The same is true for hazardous-materials responders. Several of the recent incidents involving multiple firefighter fatalities list improperly maintained or malfunctioning SCBAs as contributing factors in the deaths of firefighters. To combat this devastating trend, the fire service must take a proactive approach to SCBA fit testing, firefighter physical evaluation, SCBA maintenance, and SCBA training.


The first step to becoming proficient with an SCBA is to become familiar with the manufacturer’s intended use for the SCBA and its limitations. This can be accomplished by inviting a qualified representative to deliver in-service training to your organization members. Items of particular interest include the recommended donning and doffing procedures, buddy breathing procedures, any maintenance the user can perform with minimal training, and any special requirements the manufacturer places on the users. This information is vital for the safe operation of individual units. It is invaluable when dealing with product liability issues resulting in personnel injury or death. Personnel should not use a particular model of SCBA at an actual incident prior to being properly trained in and evaluated on it, regardless of length of service or rank.


Take a systematic approach while training in and using the SCBA. The first step is to configure the SCBA in a way that allows the firefighter to efficiently don the unit, regardless of whether the SCBA is stored in a case, jump seat, or compartment or is on the ground at an incident. The “ready position” is that first step: All shoulder and waist straps are fully extended, the face piece straps are fully extended, the air cylinder is filled to capacity (to maximize work duration and survival time), the bottle valve is off, the pressure has been bled off the regulator, and the SCBA is in position to facilitate donning (photo 1). Having all the straps fully extended will enable the firefighter to quickly don the SCBA in any emergency situation. The bottle valve should be closed and the system free of pressure.

To bleed the system free of pressure, open the main line valve, breathing the system down or using the purge valve on units with such a device. Using the bypass may leave pressure in the regulator and thus interfere with the check of the quarter service alarm.

1 Photos by David B. Fulmer.





For the purpose of this article, the “ready position” will be as described above and with the SCBA on the ground. Point the neck of the cylinder away from you with the back plate facing up. To don, grasp the high-pressure connection to the bottle with the left hand and draw the bottle up on end. Ensure that the connection is properly tightened (photo 2). If it is not, there is a good chance that the O-ring will be damaged when the unit is charged, putting a unit out of service. Fully open the bottle. Many firefighters are trained to open the cylinder only a few turns. This procedure conflicts with the manufacturer’s recommendations and can also reduce the available air flow and allow for easy accidental closure of the cylinder while working.

You should hear an audible quarter service alarm while opening the cylinder. If you do not, shut the cylinder off, bleed the system free of pressure, and start the donning sequence over. If you still do not hear the alarm, take the SCBA out of service immediately. A quarter service alarm failure can result in firefighter injuries or death.

Then, verbally state the amount of air in the cylinder. The purpose of this is multifold. First, the wearer can ensure the unit is at or near capacity. It allows members of the response team to compare the amount of air available in their tanks with that of other team members. A member with several hundred psi less in an identical cylinder is a liability because of decreased work time. In addition, if that member is required to rescue another member or victim, a diminished air supply will affect his ability to perform.

Next, determine whether to don the unit using the coat-swing or over-the-head method (photos 3, 4, 5). Regardless of the method of donning, check the bypass or purge valve as the last step of the donning process. If this valve is not functioning, the unit should be out of service and not be worn. If you are equipped with a PASS device, turn it on at this point.








The “Emergency Procedures” steps allow you to systematically check your breathing apparatus during a malfunction. During the 40-hour smoke divers program taught at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute, this is called the “left hand emergency procedure.” This term was coined because nearly all breathing apparatus manufacturers place the major components of the SCBA on the left side of the unit. This is the basis for the following systematic emergency procedure.

When you experience an SCBA malfunction, get down on the floor where the good air is. The environment will not get any better than what it is close to the floor.

Bring your left hand up to the face piece (photo 6). Check to make sure the face piece is intact and that there are no major leaks or deficiencies. Even with a gloved hand, you will notice a change in the sound of air flowing from the face piece malfunction.

From here on, the check will depend on the specific type of SCBA. The check may be generalized for either mask-mounted regulators (MMR) or waist/chest-mounted regulators. In the case of the MMR, operate the purge or bypass valve located on the MMR (photo 7).

Next, follow the high-pressure line from the MMR to the step-down regulator and then to the cylinder connection by running your left hand down the high-pressure line. This will locate any major deficiencies with the unit.







Next, check the cylinder connection for leaks caused by a loosened connection or blown O-ring. If you find a leak in this area, shut down the SCBA cylinder prior to attempting to tighten the connection (photo 8). Ensure that the high-pressure connection is tight, and reopen the cylinder valve completely.

With waist/chest-mounted regulators, follow the low-pressure breathing tube from the face piece to the regulator, searching for a malfunctioning exhalation valve, loose or broken connections, crimps, or other deficiencies. Once you have found the regulator, the first valve you come to will be the emergency bypass. The shape of this valve will vary, depending on the unit. Commit to memory the distinction of the main line valve and emergency bypass/purge valves. You can open this valve to provide air flow.

The main line will be the next valve you come to. If you use the emergency bypass, the main line valve should be shut off. After the malfunction is corrected, open the main line valve and close the emergency bypass.

Next, you will find the high-pressure line (photo 9). From here, the procedure is the same as described for the MMR SCBA.


In certain instances, you may find yourself in decreased or narrow openings that require you to shift the breathing apparatus to the side to reduce your profile. This is an emergency or escape procedure rather than one designed to allow entry into confined areas during fire situations (photo 10).

To shift the breathing apparatus, fully extend the shoulder straps and disconnect the chest strap. Next, fully extend the waist strap. This will allow you to shift the unit to your right or left side. Shifting to the left is the preferred method because it keeps the regulator and hoses in a position that offers the largest decrease in profile on most units. It also provides for the best control of the waist/chest-mounted regulators. Once you have maneuvered past the obstacle, return the SCBA to its proper position and readjust the straps.








At times, shifting the SCBA will not be enough to gain the clearance you need to pass an obstacle. In this case you may “dump” the unit while maintaining your air supply. Such a technique can be useful when passing through breached walls, collapse areas, or partially opened doors (photo 11).

Fully extend all straps, and disconnect the chest strap if applicable. Lying on your left side, disconnect the waist straps and remove your right arm from the harness. Roll onto your stomach, removing your left arm from the harness. This procedure protects the main components of the SCBA during the dumping process.

Once you are out of the harness, gather the straps and regulator (if applicable) and place them onto the back plate, which should be facing upward. This will decrease the chances of entangling straps while maneuvering the SCBA. The orientation of the cylinder valve depends on the type of unit. Typically, it is pointed away from you; with waist/chest-mounted regulator units, the valve is usually pointed toward you. This provides maximum breathing tube reach and maneuverability.

To reposition the unit onto your back, roll into the unit or use the coat-swing method. To roll into the unit, lay the unit out with the straps fully extended and spread out. Have the unit on your left side with the cylinder valve pointed toward your feet. Then place your left arm into the harness assembly and roll to the left until you are against the back plate. Find the right shoulder strap by reaching your right hand over your right shoulder and locating the strap where it connects to the back plate. Place your right arm through the right strap. You can fasten the waist strap and return the SCBA to its normal position.

The procedure for placing the SCBA on your back using the coat swing is simply to use the coat-swing method of donning while making sure your left arm goes over the top of the breathing tube (photo 12) and you place the SCBA on your left shoulder first.




After personnel have mastered the skills of shifting, dumping, and the left hand emergency procedures, challenge them with drills. Set up simple obstacle courses using objects in and around the fire station to simulate confined areas or entanglement hazards. For added difficulty, black out masks fully or partially. The objective is for the firefighter to develop and build manipulative skills. Make it challenging but not impossible to complete. Add common fireground distractions such as radio traffic, PASS devices, rope, hose, and other items for realism. A fire officer can successfully develop and fine-tune the skills of fire personnel by training in 20- to 30-minute intervals over a period of several sessions.

DAVID B. FULMER is chief of the Miami Township (OH) Division of Fire & EMS. He previously served as chief with the Fitchburg (WI) Fire Department, assistant chief of the Village of Savoy (IL) Fire Department, and assistant fire service education specialist at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and a designated chief fire officer. Fulmer has an associate’s degree in fire protection technologies, a bachelor’s degree in technical education from the University of Akron, and a master’s in public administration from Governors State University. He also serves as a principal member of the NFPA 1021 committee.

GLENN P. JIRKA is deputy chief of operations for the Miami Township (OH) Division of Fire & EMS. He previously was a division chief for the Boone County (MO) Fire District, hazardous materials team leader for FEMA’s USAR MO TF-1, and hazardous materials training program manager for the University of Missouri Fire and Rescue Training Institute. He received a B.S. and an M.S. in chemistry from Southern Illinois University and his postgraduate training from the University of Illinois. Jirka is an active member of the Emergency Response Technology Program Advisory Group of the National Technology Transfer Center, the National Fire Protection Association Hazardous Materials Protective Clothing and Equipment Technical Committee, the IFSTA Hazardous Materials Committee, and the National Fire Service Incident Management System Consortium Model Procedures Group.

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