Training lets you breathe easier

Training lets you breathe easier


Paul McFadden’s Volunteers Corner

So much has been written about the need for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that I feel anything said about the importance of this equipment would (and should) be redundant. The fire service is meeting the need of respiratory protection with the purchase of both newer and better SCBA models—but responsibility cannot end with expenditures.

The fire service cannot continue to answer firefighters’ complaints that “The unit doesn’t last long enough” by pouring more money into larger bottles. Often this leads to complaints of “The unit is too heavy and cumbersome.”

A full and comprehensive training program, not dollars, is one of the best solutions to SCBA user problems. Training is the key to reduced air usage. The bottle holds plenty of air, the user is just breathing too much—and this is not his fault. For years, our training programs have revolved around the need for SCBA, for understanding the physical parts of the unit, and for proper donning procedures, seldom emphasizing air conservation.

When a fire department training school in Suffolk County, NY, built a new administration building, the cellar was equipped with an SCBA maze training unit 88 feet long and 25 feet wide. Inside the maze are ramps, stairs, ladders, tunnels, open floor rafters, etc. The maze is broken into three zones with many starting points.

After an orientation class, the student enters the smokeless facility alone with full turnout gear, including helmet, coat, boots (pulled up), gloves (two), and an SCBA with a facepiece that has been painted grey (grey paint allows for light changes). The only tool allowed in this maze is a broomstick handle the length of a halligan bar. This broomstick reduces the potential damage to both the maze and instructors alike (ankles being a prime target). About 12 minutes later, the student will have completed one zone, and about one third of those students attending for the first time will have expended one-half hour’s worth of air. Most will complain that the maze is too hot and have sweat pouring off of them, even though it’s air-conditioned. Operating alone in a strange environment without any logical pattern as to direction of travel and the amount of obstacles encountered, all work psychologically on the student. Pulse rates of 140 are common and some will be as high as 180.

Maze training is discipline training, not a search and rescue drill. Instructors are taught not to communicate with the student unless the student is going to do something dangerous, and, without the security of a partner, the student has to muster all his self-discipline to complete the course. Search becomes a natural development once self-discipline is obtained and classes in this subject can now focus on the techniques of search itself.

It is not uncommon to see probies, as well as veterans, grow progressively uneasy and attempt to remove facepieces. These people are easy to spot: arms start waving, breathing rate goes sky high, direction of travel gets even more confused. Instead of allowing them to remove the facepiece, instructors have them sit, take three deep breaths, and continue, even if they have to talk to the students all the way out.

If a person wants to quit, he cannot leave the maze without his facepiece on (even if this means re-donning just before the exit). Peer criticism and embarrassment can drive them away from this important drill whereas their trust in the instructor encourages the student to return for the second and third time. Performing this personally difficult evolution over and over will increase the student’s confidence and lower his air consumption rate to the acceptable average rate of 13-17 minutes per bottle. With more training, even more time will be gained from a fully charged SCBA unit.

One student, a diver, negotiated two sections of the maze using less than one quarter of an air cylinder. His remark was, “1 trust the equipment, therefore I only breathe when necessary’.” This simple statement is actually quite profound. The undisciplined air users do not trust the equipment, therefore they must keep breathing in order to prove to themselves that the regulator is still operable. And breathe they do—almost to the point of hyperventilation.

Using the buddy system, and after maze training has been completed, the student now can be tested under heat and smoke conditions. Tasks such as finding inanimate objects, recognizing familiar furnishings, raising ladders, etc., all can be accomplished in this performance drill. Air consumption and the amount of air required to complete this course should be noted and recorded. Giving the students specific tasks to complete will reduce the possibility of turning your drill into a competitive race. The results will surprise both you and the students. Not only is air consumption reduced, but the time needed to complete training operations in the test building is also reduced.

The cost of building a training maze must be either addressed or alternatives sought. Many departments can share a centrally located maze, or build a maze within a trailer. Also, we can choose to use fire station equipment to produce a temporary maze (tables on their sides, stairs, closets, bathrooms, etc.), making it large enough to require 10-15 minutes to completely negotiate.

SCBA that has been taken out of service because it is no longer able to meet certification can be utilized within your maze (but not in the performance drill). This practice will not only put to use an otherwise obsolete piece of equipment, but it also allows fireground SCBA to remain in service during drill periods.

Mistakes (unless injury-threatening) should not be corrected in the maze so that silence can be maintained. Rather, critiques should be held to address the group as a whole.

All departments, regardless of size, need this type of training. Remember the guy who spent a half-hour of his air cylinder in just 12 minutes while crawling through an air-conditioned maze with nothing but a stick in his hands? Think of how long he would last in a fire building. Think of the diver who has disciplined himself, learned to trust his equipment, and, through repeated SCBA use, reduced his air consumption by more than half. Then decide in which direction your money will go. Into larger SCBA cylinders? Or into training?

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