Air Consumption for Fire Ground Survival

Basic physiology tells us that different firefighters will consume the air in their S.C.B.A. at different rates. The working air supply will depend on the firefighter's training, physical condition, activity, and mental state experienced under the...

A controlled breathing method can provide for the most efficient use of air. Breathing only through the mouth or nose is not the answer to conserving air. Breathing only through the mouth results in an increased respiratory rate while preventing the body to utilize all available oxygen before exhalation. Breathing exclusively through the nose results in short breaths that do not fill the lungs to their full capacity.

However, inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose is a method that provides more than adequate air exchange and can be beneficial while engaged in a heavy work load.

To reverse that pattern (inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth) is another method that provides for good air exchange and is easy to remember. Slow, deliberate exhalation is the key to both of these and any other breathing technique in helping to conserve air.

In an extreme emergency, being proficient in a technique such as skip breathing can mean the difference between life and death for a firefighter. Skip breathing allows for the maximum use of air that may be contained in an S.C.B.A. A rated 30-minute S.C.B.A. that normally lasts 15 -20 minutes can be extended well over an hour with this breathing technique. This extra time can be the deciding factor necessary for a Rapid Intervention Team to be successful in removing the firefighter in trouble. To perform skip breathing, the firefighter inhales fully and holds this breath for the duration that a normal exhalation would take. At this point, the firefighter shall take an additional breath and begin to slowly exhale. This cycle is then repeated.

Whatever breathing techniques are used by a firefighter it is paramount that they are performed calmly and efficiently. Training such as regular consumption tests will allow a firefighter to practice and perfect breathing techniques and will also help promote emotional stability of firefighters while wearing S.C.B.A. A regular physical fitness program will also help firefighters wear S.C.B.A. while experiencing less fatigue and maximizing their consumption rate.


Jeffrey Pindelski is a 16 year plus student of the fire service and currently a Battalion Chief with the Downers Grove Fire Department in Illinois. He previously served for 12 years as a Firefighter and Lieutenant on the Truck and Heavy Rescue Company. Jeff is a staff instructor at the College of Du Page and also instructs courses at the Downers Grove Fire Academy. He has been involved with the design of several training programs dedicated to firefighter safety and survival and is the coauthor of the text R.I.C.O., Rapid Intervention Company Operations.