Air is free, why are we afraid of using it?
Last year I put together an article titled, “Taking air for granted,” that highlighted the importance of VO2, touched on training on air, knowing your SCBA, and broke the ice. After continuing my training, competing, and preparing for the fireground, the importance of air continues to tug at me, why? Without air, we are dead, simple, that’s it. With the exception of divers, frequent swimmers, and other oddities, the ability to hold your breath for an extended period of time is impossible. As I trained last week I knew I was into my emergency air supply as I climbed my training tower racing for time, how far can I make It I kept thinking. We as firefighters go into the IDLH with a limited supply of breathing air and a stamp stating how many minutes (a misconception) right on the cylinder.
We yearn as firefighters to cut things up in extrication, train in acquired structures with live burns, work on specialized areas of firefighting that have sexy names and equipment, yet we are afraid of training on that one thing we wear on our backs. Why is that? The number of firehouses with cascades and breathing air compressors can’t be that few and far between, but we really are scared of running those tanks down. The exception of this rule seems to be on the fireground where we charge forward, many still relying on the low air alarm to signal it being time to exit the IDLH. I would even go as far to say there are departments working through that bell, staying on air because, “its just a single family residential fire and we’re in overhaul. Maybe its a department that pops off air during overhaul because, well the fire is out. Sadly, many departments do this because, “thats the way we’ve always done it,” and don’t want to or don’t know how to utilize ROAM. When that first cylinder is empty you’re ready to get back in the fight, a statistic in the waiting.
What is it that makes pulling those SCBA off the rigs and running through the air so scary? Is it fear of being put on the spot that you might breathe through the bottle quickly? Does it take too much of your time to fill bottles? Is there fear of being able to instruct something like air management and discuss simple math and numbers? Perhaps it is laziness and complacency because, “it will never happen to us.” I believe in most cases it is a combination of all the above answers. Air management may not be sexy, but it sure as hell is pretty important to us as humans. So important and interesting enough that the “Seattle Guys” put together the Bible about the subject titled, Air Management. It. Goes back to the ABC’s from EMT training. Airway, Breathing, Circulation, you mess any of those three up and you have problems.
It starts with the truck checks… Checking those SCBA on the rigs, and not just checking that yep we have 5 SCBA on this truck and they “look” ok. It’s pulling the pack, checking the straps, checking the pressure, checking any attachments, battery levels, turning it on and actually seeing that it will really function. Many problems can be fixed prior to the call when you need to enter the IDLH by just really checking your SCBA. Each time gets the firefighter more comfortable with the functionality and all the bells and whistles of the unit.
It means putting something in writing…SOG/SOP are great, if they are actually known and applied properly. It’s something that is necessary so that your department HAS a standard to uphold and train from. Have clear standards of what is acceptable and what is not. Clearly state that SCBA will be functionally checked, not just that they exist on the rig. Clearly stating that you have an acceptable cylinder pressure when checking. Clearly stating the expectation that firefighters will know how much air is in the SCBA, and managing it so that you will leave the IDLH before the low air alarm activates is a key piece. Look up NFPA 1404 and do some reading, the SOP/SOG should easily write itself.
It’s the little things…Really it is not too terrible to start implementing change at the very most BASIC level. Checking your air supply and knowing what the pressures are of your entire crew that’s going in together. Routinely monitoring what your air levels are, for me that’s when I turn it on, at the door, moving into another room, changing floors, once you have the knockdown, once overhaul begins, and sometimes just because. It takes a second, and just another moment to check your crew, isn’t your life worth that? Now that you’re staying more in touch with what your air supply is, it is also knowing to get out of the IDLH BEFORE your low air alarm activates. Sure that doesn’t seem like much, until it hits the fan and there is an entrapment, or sudden change in the interior resulting in you needing that air. Here’s a key thing for the finance people, the budget people, the people downtown, the chiefs watching the budget… These “little things” take ZERO dollars to implement. This comes down to training, now add in that SOG/SOP and now we are really getting somewhere.
Training on air… Here is a key piece because its one thing to be standing in front of the firefighters with a PowerPoint only, and talking about air, its another to do that and then follow it up with a hands on portion. I’m not saying take every pack off the rig and put your house out of service, but a few SCBA will be required. I’m not going to steal someone else’s work out there, hit Google and do a search for air management training. There are several power points that will show you an obstacle course of tasks to do with your SCBA while starting from a set pressure point and calculating how much air your firefighters are using. If your firefighters have no idea how much pressure they go through per minute, how will they ever be able to tell how long their air will last or what their personal work cycle is? Obviously every job will be slightly different, but they will have a good ballpark of time to keep in their mind. Now take that one step further beyond figuring out the ACR and train your firefighters on your SCBA and how they function or react when the EOSTI warning bells/buzzers start signaling that they are into their emergency supply of air. Are your SCBA the new compliance where it is 33% or are they the older 25%, perhaps depending on your department you have a mix? What pressure does the alarm sound, what will they hear, feel, and how does it react? At what pressure does it stop making its noise signifiying that you are in a really bad situation if the RIT/RIC is not close with a supply of air? So many department trainings I see, watch YouTube videos of, and even have been involved with, deal solely with plenty of air supply, a known victim with plenty of air and maybe not even on a mask. How are you training that victim or the crew properly.
I had an emergency… As I said, last week on the training tower, one of my evolutions up/down 13 floors I ran into an air emergency. I knew it was coming, no I was not in an IDLH environment, and yes if I wanted to I could completely disconnect and go off air. That’s not the point that it was safe. The point is that during this training I ran into an air emergency and I treat it as if its the real thing. Immediately I checked my gauges, quickly went over my pack, my location, distance up the tower, and formulated in my head the next statement. MAYDAY. I verbally made the MAYDAY call aloud and not in my head. Whether you use LUNAR or WWW or some other acronym out there, you need to be practiced in it if you want it to come out well. Now is not the time to panic and lose it. As I progressed up the tower I continued to monitor my location, change my breathing technique, and again issue the MAYDAY and relay information as to my new location. More intense than that alarm bell or vibralert going off is when it slows and then stops, telling you there is almost no air remaining. How much can you control your breathing now to make it last, will it be 12 breaths or maybe 24 before the mask sucks to your face? If you’ve never experienced this, training is a far better place to find out rather than in the middle of a fire situation. Train like its real, every time, and build the muscle memory so that your mind and body will react accordingly.
Sadly, it doesn’t take much looking around on the Internet to find that air emergencies and close calls still do exist and are a contributing factor to injury and death, but little is being done to help it still. NFPA moving to 33% EOSTI was a huge change, but only for those with updated or new SCBA. In the end, this still comes down to the training in your house and the changes that you make. This doesn’t have to start from the top down, this can start with YOU and build the change from the bottom up. Air is free, train with it. These changes for the most part are free, discuss it and work on implementing it. The potential cost lies in maybe having someone work on the SOP/SOG and then reissuing it.