Trevor Steedman: SCBA Boot Camp: A Firefighter’s Survival School

By Trevor Steedman

As firefighters, we are introduced to new technologies at an increasing rate. These advances are intended to help us to perform fireground tasks with greater safety and efficiency. Unfortunately, many firefighters have become so reliant on technology that they have allowed it to replace, rather than enhance, their basic firefighting skills. We have seen great examples of this paradigm shift in the past when first training with thermal imaging cameras (TICs) and positive pressure ventilation (PPV) fans. Initially, with TIC, many firefighters abandoned their basic search skills and failed to remain physically oriented during searches, relying solely on the screen display to guide them through the structure to their objective. Then, when the TIC was dropped and couldn’t be recovered or if the battery died, the firefighter might as well have been in the middle of the ocean without a compass trying to find land. These experiences forced us to revert to our basic search techniques to reorient ourselves and either continue our search or find our way out. But what about those newer generations of firefighters who never had to routinely perform search without TICs and may not have developed these strong basic skills? Fortunately, this deficit has become largely recognized. Consider how many of us now advocate that the firefighter carrying the TIC remain oriented to a door or known point within the structure. To reinforce this point, many training officers throw the “dead battery” curve ball to their firefighters if they get in the middle of the room being searched and don’t stay oriented to a door or a window. Likewise, when our departments purchased our first PPV fans, we watched the training video once before placing it among the archives on a shelf at the firehouse. Maybe we even drilled with the fan at a controlled burn and then became instant “experts” on PPV. A few local departments in my area went a step further and hired an instructor to set up a PPV drill at a controlled burn in an acquired structure. A fire was ignited in a rear bedroom of the single-story structure and the PPV fan was fired up in the front door right on cue. All of the appropriate doors and structural openings had been strategically opened or closed to achieve the desired effect for the PPV magic show we were about to see. The instructor gave the firefighters a guided “walking tour” down the hallway toward the open door of the involved room.  He had the firefighters stand while advancing the hoseline down the hallway while they marveled at the illusions of cool, clear, and safe conditions leading up to the fire room. Unfortunately, the fire didn’t follow the script. The rear window of the involved room had failed and self-vented. A coupling from the attack crew’s advancing hoseline knocked loose the aluminum patio chair that was chocking open the front storm door. The storm door closed, blocking the airflow of the PPV fan, and the prevailing 20-knot wind pushed the fire back in the window and down the hallway on the firefighters. In their standing position, the firefighters were immediately overwhelmed, and chaos ensued. They failed to manage the hoseline as some attempted a running retreat while others reverted to the basics and dropped to the floor. Panicked screams and a rapid change in fire conditions drew the attention of the backup crew (pre-rapid intervention team) who made entry, knocked the fire, and pulled the firefighters to safety. Three firefighters and an instructor received second-degree burns and were transported to the hospital. They narrowly escaped with their lives.

 So, what do these examples have to do with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) you ask? It is simple. Failure to consider and fully understand the capabilities and limitations of these tools resulted in poor operational practices, close calls, and near-misses that could easily have killed us. Similarly, many firefighters have lost their “survival skills” with their SCBA. Advanced technology is an adjunct, an asset, a too–not a replacement for skills. For those who have been at this crazy firefighting thing for a while, you have witnessed many changes and advancements with SCBA. As these changes and advancements occurred, technologies were put in place to increase our safety and potentially reduce negative circumstances caused by human error. For example, the initial Mask-mounted Heads-Up-Display (HUD) provided an immediate visual indicator of remaining air at 75, 50, 25 and 10 percent of the cylinder capacity (photo 1). At 25 percent, or “Quarter-Service,” the SCBA face piece will provide an audible and tactile alert that is obvious to the wearer. The year 2013 brought about National Fire Protection Association standard changes that designate Full, 2/3, and 1/3 for remaining air quantity. In days gone by, we had to try and remember to manually check our strap-mounted air gauges and didn’t have any overt indication of low air until the bell rang on the bottom of the SCBA. This was usually followed by the shout, “Whose (explicative withheld) bell is that?” as we groped awkwardly behind our backs trying to feel the vibration to determine if our bell was the one in question. Although the HUD enhances our ability to consistently monitor our remaining air, it introduces additional psychological stressors that may challenge our ability to regulate air consumption. For example, when we see the two green indicator lights, we have a feeling that we have plenty of air and all is well. As the air in our cylinder is consumed, the indicator lights gradually diminish from reassuring green to cautionary yellow and ultimately flashing red accompanied by an audible/ tactile alert. During SCBA drills, I have repeatedly observed the Air Consumption Rates (ACRs) of the firefighters increase when the visual indicators of remaining air change. This reaction often occurs when there are no

(1) Photos courtesy of author.





additional stimuli, no appreciable changes in conditions, and no increased workload on the firefighter. As a corollary, when the visual, audible, and tactile stimuli increase, the ACRs incrementally increase. So, how do we receive the benefit of this advanced technology without succumbing to its ancillary effects that increase the ACRs? The answer is simple–training!

Training with SCBA is nothing new. However, take a look back to consider the strengths and deficits of your training. Did your SCBA emergency procedure drills prepare you for almost any inevitability, or were you just “going through the motions”? Were the principles of good air management stressed and practiced? Did you spend more time watching a PowerPoint® presentation about SCBA than you did out on the drill ground using it? How often do you personally practice your SCBA and air-management and survival skills? Have your drills and training kept up with the changes in technology? In other words, what have you done to master one of the most basic tools of your trade? Think about how often SCBA is worn on your back compared to the time it’s actually at work. How well do you know its components, capabilities, and limitations? Now is the time to find out.

SCBA drills can reemphasize good and bad habits. Creating SCBA drills is a challenge but also an opportunity to produce and instill solid SCBA practices and mask confidence in the firefighter. The more comfortable and familiar firefighters are with their equipment, the better and more efficiently they will perform. Likewise, good air-management practices become second nature when consistently exercised during these drills. Here are some practices and drills that have proven effective in achieving that objective:

Air-Management Techniques

Air management is a critical element of SCBA training. The overall objectives of the SCBA Bootcamp provide the firefighter with a comprehensive SCBA program, achieved through practical and realistic approaches, for surviving in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere. Good air-management techniques are introduced and practiced in the classroom and transitioned to the drill ground, where they can be practically applied. Therefore, before firefighters ever don an SCBA face piece, they are taught how to breathe. Although discussed, the natural and involuntary process of breathing is not at issue. Rather, the firefighter’s understanding of the psychological and physiological effects of SCBA on this process is the focus. Emphasis is placed on cause, effect, and the firefighter’s ability to use SCBA survival techniques to overcome and mitigate air management challenges and emergencies. Simply stated, the firefighters must understand the “How” and “Why” before they can perform the “What.” There are many approaches and outlooks on air-management techniques and practices. In the absence of empirical data, the “best practices” for air-conserving breathing techniques are often based more on opinions and conjecture. Despite extensive research being done on all sides of this issue, many disagreements about the subject persists. In my research on the topic of air management / air-conservation breathing techniques, I’ve encountered a myriad of “studies” that purport to be rooted in science. However, there remains some controversy and skepticism as to the legitimate use of true scientific method in many studies vs. a series of “science-based tests” designed to prove, support, and publicize a particular author’s spin on the subject. Conversely, there are other sources of data and information, some occasionally less formal, that focus on practical and objective observations that may be taught, practiced, and applied to yield improved ACRs.  Some confusion and controversy about the use of breathing techniques in the fire service results from our endeavor to adapt them from the large number of areas and activities outside of our profession in which such practices are used. Breathing techniques are used in a variety of sports and athletics (martial arts, yoga, swimming, free-diving, and cardio-fitness) vocal /speech training, and the playing of some musical instruments, to name a few. Any breathing methods adapted for firefighter air-conservation purposes will have pros and cons. Regardless of individual sentiments, most firefighters and instructors would concur that if a technique works, you can train on it, understand it, use it, and if you’re comfortable with it, stick with it. Locally, we have trained, practiced, and instituted some standardized recommendations for air-management breathing techniques. Firefighters have been encouraged to practice these techniques during physical training / physical conditioning, drills, exercise, house duties, running, and so on. Those members who have invested in these frequent opportunities to practice these techniques have consistently demonstrated greater mask confidence and improved ACRs in training and on the fireground. Ultimately, any good actions or techniques that can provide a few more precious seconds of air and save the life of a distressed firefighter are worth trying.

NFPA 1981: Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services (2013 revision) in part, has again refocused our attention on air management. The End-of-Service indicators have been modified to allow for additional emergency reserves of air. These changes obligate us to amend our SCBA air-management policies and practices. Far too frequently, line-of-duty death (LODD) reports include such declarations as “Contributing Factors: Air management doctrine not followed….” Regrettably, many instructors (including me) have contributed greatly to this paradigm by our actions on the drill ground that follow us to the fireground. We have sent mixed messages about air-management to our firefighters. Unfailingly, we will preach to firefighters the importance of air management and situational awareness in allowing for adequate time to exit an IDLH atmosphere when the End-of-Service indicators alert. However, we errantly follow up our sermon on the drill ground by failing to exit the burn building when our End-of-Service indicators alert us. Worse, firefighters have witnessed instructors reenter a burn building, alerts sounding, to squeeze one more burn evolution so as not to “waste any time” during training to prematurely change or fill their SCBA cylinder. In basic terms, What you allow, you teach! NFPA 1404: Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training, provides us with a design by which to teach these vital SCBA skills, including air management. This is particularly relevant in consideration of the aforementioned 2013 NFPA standards update that directly impacts SCBA air-management criteria.          

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Assembly Line Drill

This is a very versatile drill that accomplishes multiple objectives. SCBA familiarization instills confidence by conditioning the user to rapidly diagnose failures and address malfunctions. As such, this level of awareness makes transitioning to emergency breathing and escape procedures second nature. Much like a Marine and his rifle, a firefighter must be intimately familiar with the working components of the SCBA. Certainly, we will not be “field stripping” an SCBA inside of an IDLH atmosphere. However, by breaking down the SCBA into its basic working components, the firefighter becomes intimately aware of the feel and location of each part, especially when done under obscured vision. A group of four to seven firefighters is ideal for this drill. Disassemble the SCBA into as many parts as you have participants (photos 2-5). Have the firefighters don obscured masks and individually place them in various parts of a room. The instructor then gives the objectives and instructions for the drill:

·        Give each participant a part of the SCBA, which the student should be able to identify by touch.

·        On the word “Go,” have the participants find the students with the appropriate parts to reassemble the SCBA.

·        Allow the participants two minutes to complete the task. Time stops when the SCBA unit is fully reassembled and air is flowing from the regulator (using the donning/doffing valve or the bypass).

This progressive drill is initially performed with obscured masks only. The next time, the SCBA is worn and the drill is performed while on air. Add fire gloves and, finally, full turnout gear. This drill has some ancillary benefits. It encourages and inspires team building and is an excellent tool for assessing leadership potential in those firefighters who step up and initiate communication and coordination efforts during the drill.

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A MAYDAY-based drill, D-Fence, simulates a firefighter’s being trapped or pinned. Unlike other Mayday drills that allow the firefighter to remain mobile, this drill limits or denies the firefighter’s mobility by placing the firefighter in a position he cannot control or readily escape. The given scenario is that of a firefighter conducting a search. As the firefighter is conducting the search, two instructors drop a section of chain-link fence (approximately 6 feet × 8 feet) over the unsuspecting firefighter (photos 6-7). The instructors stand or kneel on the corners of the fence, which effectively renders the firefighter immobile in whatever body position they were in at the time of the “collapse.” Note: Standing or kneeling on the corners of the fencing is more than sufficient to “trap” or “pin” the firefighter. (Do not jump on the back or “dog pile” the firefighter. It is dangerous, unnecessary, and can potentially cause serious injury to the firefighter). This drill establishes a Mayday situation and helps to evaluate the firefighter’s understanding and use of Mayday policies, procedures, and practices.

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Ant Farm

The Ant Farm uses a basic fireground function to assist the firefighter in assessing and controlling ACRs under a consistent, working stress (photos 8-11). A series of ladders of varying heights are thrown to a building, and the firefighters are required to ascend and descend them in a particular order. This drill is aptly named: the firefighters resemble the appearance of ants steadily traversing the passageways of an ant farm. The firefighters gain experience with practicing a variety of breathing techniques during this drill. ACRs are recorded and correlated with the number of complete cycles the firefighter completes coupled with an assessment of personal pace and exertion. This process establishes a matrix by which each firefighter gains a personalized perspective of his ACR capabilities and limitations. The Ant Farm also is an opportunity to reinforce proper climbing and heeling techniques. Following are safety considerations for this drill.

·        Ty-off / secure ladders.

·        Monitor participants for fatigue, cramping, overheating, and nausea.

·        As with any such activity, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

·        Do not exceed recommended ladder section loads.

·        Position instructors at strategic locations to constantly monitor all participants and to provide immediate assistance if necessary. Prior to the drill, instructors should confirm assignments and contingencies should any mid-ladder or other participant issues arise.

·        Maintain personnel accountability throughout the drill.

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Drop Zone

The Drop Zone is a disentanglement drill that closely replicates a firefighter’s becoming entangled in the grid and wires of a drop ceiling (photos 12-15). In addition to providing challenging entanglement conditions, this drill is simple and inexpensive to conduct. These benefits are noteworthy in that the prop is reusable several times, yet it is simultaneously expendable–participants are “encouraged” to use any and all means necessary to free themselves and their crew from the entanglement. The efforts of the crew members to cut and remove sections of the entanglement during the drill create a multitude of different entanglement possibilities each time the prop is used. This prevents the participants from becoming “used to” the prop and simply going through the motions on successive drills. The singular prop used for the Drop Zone is a roll of plastic construction fence. The fencing is unrolled and staged around the perimeter of a room or with adequate space to allow a crew to be enveloped by the fencing. Masks occluded, the participants are led into position, and the fencing is draped over the firefighters. With very little instructor manipulation, the fencing will seemingly seek and catch on any or all snag points on the firefighter’s helmet, SCBA, and turnout gear. Initially, the firefighters will inadvertently begin to entangle other members on their crew through individual efforts to clear entanglements. Teamwork and communication become paramount and are reinforced as this predicament is recognized, addressed, and overcome by the participants.  A variation of this drill has been used for SCUBA entanglement during pool training sessions.

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Triple Crown

The objective of the Triple Crown drill is for the participants to use and master a variety of breathing-control techniques in an effort to improve individual ACRs (photos 16-17).. Repetitive short and intense bursts of energy and exertion, typical of many initial fireground activities, are used to challenge the firefighters. To simulate the weight and action of pulling a charged line on the fireground, rope or short lengths of out-of-service fire hose are attached to old tires. Bus or tractor-trailer size tires provide the best overall drag on the ground to simulate the approximate weight. Although actual charged handlines can be used, this training prop provides several benefits: It saves wear and tear on in-service equipment, doesn’t require a pumper or piece of fire apparatus, is portable, and can be left assembled and stored for use at any time. The instructor can set up the drill in whatever configuration suits the goals and needs. However, the Triple Crown moniker is derived from dividing the participants into three-person relay teams. A back-and-forth relay course is established in which two firefighters are placed at one end of the course and one firefighter at the other. Firefighter 1drags the tire to an awaiting firefighter (2) positioned several yards away. Firefighter 2 drags the tire back to where it came from to the remaining firefighter (3). Firefighter 3 completes the process by dragging it back to Firefighter 1 This process continues and can be run in as many “laps” as necessary to achieve the desired goal. Several teams can be simultaneously run side-by-side, adding some fun and competition.


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Putting It All Together

Perhaps the most critical elements taught as part of SCBA Bootcamp: A Firefighter’s Survival School is the Continuum of Survival®. Individual techniques and methods of SCBA survival and air management are imperative. However, if that one “go-to” method doesn’t work, then what? Many states and regions used to conduct Smoke Divers programs that enabled firefighters to become intimately familiar with their SCBA. During these programs, firefighters essentially lived in SCBA for a week. It was rigorous, physically and mentally tough, and among the best classes offered at the time.  One of the ancillary lessons learned during this training was that you always had options. Unfortunately, case studies have revealed that many firefighters today have been unaware or untrained in these survival options. Some jurisdictions shy away from teaching certain survival options because they consider them dangerous. This mentality parallels that of suggesting that hurricanes should have more ominous names because people won’t react appropriately if they have “friendly” names. The operative word in that sentence is Hurricane, just as the operative word in our sentence is Survival. If we have resorted to survival techniques, something has gone wrong, and we’re about to have a really bad day. Providing a Continuum of Survival® enables firefighters to employ a variety of rapid, progressive actions that help them to keep fighting to stay alive when things don’t go by the book. The ability to recognize and clear a stuck diaphragm in a regulator may be all that’s needed to keep the SCBA unit working while finding your way out of the building. One and two-person SCBA survival techniques, escape and egress tactics, and thinking outside the box to find alternate air sources may provide critical seconds of air that save your life. Understanding and training on survival options such as mouth-to-regulator or mouth-to-cylinder and improvised filter breathing may be the only thing that keeps you from becoming the next LODD. Yes, these methods incur a certain risk–that is the nature of this business. Isn’t the greater risk dying? Many occupational and regulatory agencies are reluctant to endorse, recommend, discourage, or condemn survival techniques for fear of litigation should there be a negative outcome. Dying by the rules is great for your beneficiary; however, living to see your loved ones again is priceless!

Ultimately, we owe it to ourselves, our families, and the people we serve to become masters of our trade. A basic tenant of our profession is the SCBA: it literally preserves our lives as we try to save the lives of others. When teaching SCBA Bootcamp, I use an example based on the U.S. Marine Corps Rifleman’s Creed. Take a few minutes to look it up. Replace the word “rifle” with “SCBA,” and see what you think. Whether you take the example literally or metaphorically, learning and mastering the tools and techniques of your trade make you a formidable force.


TREVOR STEEDMAN is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with the Ocean City (MD) Fire Department, where he is head of the Training & Safety Section. He has a BS degree in fire science and owns Strike the Box Training. He’s a founder and past president of Ocean City FOOLS.


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