By: Billy Wenzel
Every day we send firefighters into IDLH atmospheres. How many of those firefighters know their air limitations? I am not just talking about the limitations of a properly working SCBA with a 45-minute cylinder. I am talking about the air limitations of a firefighter belly down in a working house fire that is suddenly out of air. The best SCBA in the world is nothing but a mechanical device, a wonderful tool that is subject to failure. I started asking crews, “What would you do?” Too often the only reply was a blank stare or a method used a decade ago with different SCBA’s. We need to think about this before it happens.
To drive the point, have your crewmembers perform these exercises:
Exercise #1 Have members hold their breath and record their times. This is how long they can last before the begin compromising thier quantity/quality of air resulting in loss of LOC. (some members think they can hold their breath until escape in a compromising situation).
Exercise #2 Have two members don SCBA’s and turn them on. (with an instructor in a controlled area, no smoke or heat). Advise the members that they are in a house fire performing a team search. They are not close to an exit and one of their SCBA’s has malfunctioned the member is out of air. Select one member and physically turn off the bottle. See how the members overcome the air loss. If they remove their masks or any PPE, they have compromised their lives (members will want to remove gloves for improved dexterity).
Exercise #3 Have each member perform physical functions around the station (climbing stairs/ladders, walking, and so on) while breathing from their SCBA’s. Record times and how long each member’s air lasts before the cylinder is empty. This is critical information for the company officer. Every member will use air at a different rate. A company officer needs to know the air consumption rate of his/her firefighters. It could determine how deep the company officer can take a crew into a building. In every situation your company is only as strong as your weakest link. That weakness must be identified in a controlled environment not at 0300 hours in a hostile environment that can and will take your life.
Every member needs to go through the exercise. Every member needs to have that feeling of their masks sucking to their faces. This is a training exercise that they will not quickly forget and one that should be often repeated. Remember the members that seldom use SCBA’s need to practice more often. Mayday training has taught us that seldom used operations that have high life safety risks must by drilled often. This includes air management.
The tools and equipment in today’s fire service are amazing. We have come along way to be safe in a dangerous occupation. But we must never forget to consider the “what-ifs.”
Billy Jack Wenzel is a 25-year veteran of the Wichita Fire Department. He is a past member of the department’s hazardous-materials team and has a hazardous materials technician level certification. He has been a member of the departments technical rescue team for 15 years and is certified in many areas including: high angle, trench, SCUBA, and confined space. Wenzel is an NFA adjunct instructor, an EMI adjunct instructor, a past instructor at FDIC, and an instructor for KUFRTI. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. He is also a published author of several fire-related articles including, “Kansas Grain Dust Explosion” in Fire Engineering.