The Myths of Air Management

While we are teaching air management techniques across the country, students consistently ask many of the same questions. These questions, and the ideas they represent, are the “Myths of Air Management.” The fire service is legendary for its ability to resist change. Fortunately...


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While we are teaching air management techniques across the country, students consistently ask many of the same questions. These questions, and the ideas they represent, are the “Myths of Air Management.”

The fire service is legendary for its ability to resist change. Fortunately, regulatory authorities and the courts have decreased our ability to resist advances in safety techniques. Too many firefighters have paid the ultimate price, which has resulted in court-mandated changes to the way we do business. It is no longer acceptable for individuals or organizations to disregard advances in basic techniques or written standards until juries force them to comply.

Air management techniques are a new “basic skill” that all firefighters must learn and practice. Failure to do so will take you quickly to the “Point of NO Return.”

The following are the “Myths of Air Management”:

Myth No. 1 – Training is optional. This is the first and most obviously misguided myth relating to air management training. None of us would argue with the requirement for each firefighter to receive training in how to use self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). We all received this training in some type of recruit academy format when we came in. The SCBA is perhaps the most important piece of safety equipment in the American fire service. Most departments require periodic, documented training, so the question comes down to this: What SCBA training is “required” and what SCBA training is “optional”?

In response to this myth, we must pose the question: Who sets the standards for the American fire service? The answer is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). You may consider NFPA standards voluntary; however, what the judge and jury say is what matters most in the end. Most, if not all, states recognize some portions of the NFPA standards, and we would argue that fire departments have a moral and ethical responsibility to consider these minimum standards as they relate to firefighter safety.

NFPA 1404, The Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training, dictates how firefighters use, care for and train with SCBA. A quick review of NFPA 1404 will most likely confirm that your department is meeting most of the requirements of NFPA 1404 as they relate to mandatory training policies. You most certainly train new firefighters how to don and doff, how to obtain and maintain a seal, how to maintain SCBA and inform them of department policies on required use in immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environments.

It is likely that you are neglecting two major required components of an SCBA training program as outlined in NFPA 1404. These are the subject of our approach to air management: “The determination of the point of no return for each member” and “Factors that affect the duration of the air supply.” Can you really sell the judge, or more importantly the jury, that your department provided training in some of the mandatory requirements of NFPA 1404, but thought other portions were “optional”? If you believe in this “myth of air management,” you or your fire department may end up in court one day.

Beyond the legalities and regulatory language, there is an innate responsibility we have to each other, our crew and our families to make sure we are doing everything we can to operate safely at every emergency.

Myth No. 2 – It takes too long to check my air. How long it takes you to check your air supply is a function of training. If you are properly trained, or train yourself, checking your air supply is a two- to three-second maneuver.

One thing that cannot be condoned is failing to perform a skill that improves your safety because you have not practiced enough to be proficient. This applies to many of the tasks that we do on the fireground. Do you perform your accountability functions? Do you put your SCBA on properly? Do you have your radio turned on to the correct frequency? Do you stay in contact with your buddy? Do you answer the radio when the incident commander calls you? Every action we take on the fireground takes time. The question is not IF you have the time, the question is will you TAKE the time to keep you and your team safe.

The thermal imaging camera (TIC) is another great example of a new tool that takes time to use properly. Like the TIC, air management has specific techniques that improve your ability to operate effectively. Like the TIC, air management takes some time up front to improve your overall performance. Like the TIC, firefighters must be trained in how to use air management. Like the TIC, a firefighter must learn to TAKE the time necessary to use the tool properly to become more efficient and effective. The TIC allows a team to do a complete search more quickly and more thoroughly than rushing blindly ever could. In addition, the team must TAKE the time necessary to maintain their orientation without the TIC.

We believe that officers must take the time to train their firefighters, the modern-day smoke divers, to manage their air the way scuba divers do. In our discussions with dive instructors, they have described how beginning diving students receive instruction from day one to check their air supply on a regular basis. Like smoke divers, scuba divers have to consider a variety of things related to their air supply. They must consider time under, depth, time at depth, partner’s air supply, and leave an acceptable margin for safety. The margin for safety is dictated by the dive master and is usually 500 psi. The fire service should also set a standard margin for safety. Firefighters should follow the “Rule of Air Management” and exit the hazard area before their low-air warning devices sounds. We will then be operating at the fire the way our confined space rescuers and hazmat technicians in Level A suits already do.

Myth No. 3 – We are too busy to check our air. When we provide a training session in air management techniques, students commonly bring out this myth of air management early in the day. The discussion will often go like this: “We’re so busy when we fight a fire we don’t have the time, can’t remember or just don’t think about checking our air.” As with Myth No. 2, dispelling this myth is a function of training. If you train and regularly practice air management, it will become part of your “regular routine” when you are fighting a fire.

Within a firefighting team, not all members are working all the time. Take a three-person hose team, for example. Normally this would include the pipe, followed by the company officer, followed by someone to “haul hose.” As the team advances to the fire area, the workload, stress, fitness level and the effect of heat will be different for each person on the team. When the team reaches the fire compartment, firefighters should take the time to check the door for heat, ensure they have enough working line to get from the door to the seat of the fire and make sure each member of the team is ready for the fire attack. This is a great opportunity for the team members to check their air. The company officer will then have a good working knowledge of how long the team can operate in the fire compartment.

The company officer should continually evaluate the progress of the team in meeting its objective. While the firefighter focuses on completing the “task” assigned, the company officer must also function at the “tactical” level. On a continuous basis, the company officer should be making these assessments: What are the heat and smoke conditions? Are they changing? How much of our assignment have we completed? Can we finish with the air we have left? Are there other tasks that need doing? Where are we in the structure? Where is our exit? Who is the lowest on air? How hard are they working?

When the company officer notices some change to the environment, significant changes in the crew’s location (i.e., changing floors) or completion of an assigned task, the crew members should take the time to check their air and communicate with the company officer. This also lets the company officer check on the crew with a brief “How you doing?” before moving on to the next objective or work area.

The process of debunking this myth of air management boils down to company officers maintaining situational awareness. Most company officers are already doing an excellent job in this regard. If they would just add the dimension of air awareness to their situational awareness, they can prevent their teams from passing the “Point of NO Return.”

Myth No. 4 – I’ll do it when the situation calls for it. This is the most insidious myth of air management. If you take nothing else from reading this article, remember this: You will perform in an emergency consistent with the way you train and the way you perform on a daily basis.

The idea that you can disregard practicing air management at house fires, dumpster fires, car fires and other “bread and butter” fires, and then perform air management at the “big one,” is perhaps the most ludicrous of ideas in the American fire service. There are plenty of quotes to refute this idea. “Practice like you play” or “Train as if your life depended on it – because it does” both refute the notion that you can employ this technique on a selective basis. You check your air when you use your SCBA or you do not. Either you make an informed decision, based on knowledge and skill, of when to leave the hazard area, or you leave when your bell rings.

When the situation turns bad, will you be calm, prepared and rational and have a margin for error, or will your bell ring down to empty as the “Point of NO Return” looms? There is no middle ground. Firefighters must practice air management at every fire where they are breathing air from their SCBA and at every training opportunity. If they do not, they may well become the next line-of-duty-death statistic.

Myth No. 5 – Nobody has mandated the “ROAM – the Rule of Air Management,” which states, “Know how much air you have, and manage that air, so that you leave the hazard area before your low-pressure bell rings.” The question remains, “Do you want be proactive or reactive with your crew’s safety?” Is it your contention that anything not mandated is unnecessary?

We have demonstrated that NFPA 1404 mandates training in air management techniques. What are you waiting for? There have been, and continue to be, narrow escapes on a daily basis. As you read this article, somewhere in America a firefighter is running out of air in the hazard area. He or she probably will make it out safely, but keep the emergency a secret, fearing a “ribbing” from the crew. The only difference between that close call and having the bagpipes played at a funeral is the level of carbon monoxide in the building when the firefighter ran out of air.

Myth No. 6 – Someone outside the hazard area can manage air for firefighters. This is perhaps the easiest myth of air management to dispel. Think for a moment about the last time you approached the command post after coming out of a fire building. Picture the scene in your mind. Did it look like the incident commander or the aide would be able to monitor each firefighter’s air supply from the command post?

Incident commanders have a tough job outside the structure just as firefighters do inside the structure. Incident commanders are good people who work hard and want to perform well. They want everyone to go home and they want the fire to go out, just like the rest of us. So now, in addition to managing the incident command system structure, the fire building, the risk-benefit analysis, the accountability board, talking to the dispatcher, and working with the public information officer, the safety officer and the division supervisors, the incident commander should also take the time and mental energy necessary to monitor the air consumption levels of a dozen or more individual firefighters operating in multiple teams in the hazard area?

Even if your department is lucky enough to have staffing available to provide a field incident technician (FIT) for the incident commander, the FIT will have plenty of work to do already. Having a dedicated air officer is a system employed in some other countries. However, unless you can have a person specifically assigned to do nothing but monitor air supplies, you can dispel this myth of air management. In order to maintain situational awareness, air management must be an individual responsibility.

Myth No. 7 – If we have a longer bell time, we can solve the problem. This myth of air management is based upon the idea that if the low-air warning alarms on our SCBA are set to ring at 50% of the rated cylinder capacity, then the problem of firefighters running out of air in the hazard area will be solved. We would argue that this idea is completely wrong. We believe that setting the bell to ring at 50% cannot solve the problem of firefighters running out of air in the hazard area. Technology will not solve this problem. If we could rely on technology to solve this problem, the myths of air management would already be debunked.

Take a quick look at the history of the personal alert safety system (PASS) device. The first generations were not automatic and relied on the self-discipline of the firefighter to activate them prior to entering the hazard area. Firefighters were found dead with unarmed PASS devices, so the NFPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) began to mandate integrated PASS devices. The fire service, as a group, lacked the self discipline to employ the PASS device properly, a basic safety item.

Do your firefighters immediately leave the hazard area when their bell begins to ring now? Our experience is that firefighters often think, “I can work another minute before I leave.” Do you think this situation will improve if firefighters have 50% of their air left when the bell rings?

Can your firefighters distinguish between the low-air bell of a firefighter exiting the hazard area and the low-air bell of a firefighter in trouble? We have documented near-fatal situations that occurred when firefighters in trouble, with their bells ringing, were not assisted by other firefighters in the hazard area because the low-air bell is a normal noise, not an emergency alarm, on most firegrounds in America.

Having low-air warning bells sounding in the hazard area causes firefighters to have a “false-alarm” mentality towards low-air warning bells on the fireground. We believe that removing all low-air warning bells from the fireground is the answer to firefighters running out of air in the hazard area. If we get firefighters out of the fire building BEFORE their low-air warning bell rings, then no one runs out of air.

Following the ROAM has another benefit – the low-air warning bell becomes a true emergency alarm. If we follow the ROAM, and we hear a low-air warning bell go off in the hazard area, then we can assume that a firefighter is in trouble. Effective training, implementation and appropriate standard operating guidelines (SOGs) can address how low-air warning alarms are addressed in each fire department. In the Seattle Fire Department, a firefighter with a low-air warning bell must immediately notify the incident commander of the situation, including where and when he or she is exiting the structure. Low-air warning bells not addressed by a radio communication are presumed to be firefighter emergencies and teams in the immediate area are expected to provide initial rapid intervention and assistance. We trust the decision made by the brain of a firefighter over technology anytime. Implementing air management training is a zero-cost, zero-technology initiative. Let’s eliminate this myth of air management and the low-air bell “false alarm” mentality.

Myth No. 8 – My fire department does not have an air management problem. This is a myth of air management that your department probably believes in right now. If you have ever had any of your firefighters run out of air in the hazard area, then you have an air management problem in your fire department.

Most fire departments are rolling the dice of safety. Modern fire buildings can have carbon monoxide levels in excess of 30,000 ppm. Just one or two breaths of this air can render you incapacitated, and not even the best of paramedics will be able to resuscitate you. You must critically evaluate the reality of air management and its role in your fire department. When you do, consider how standard risk management strategies apply to fireground injuries and fatalities. If you have enough near misses, your future includes a tragedy.

Do you want to know how close your department is coming to the “Point of NO Return” on a regular basis? Get a couple of crews together; ask the firefighters to raise their hands if they have ever run out of air in a fire building. You will probably be surprised at how many of your firefighters have actually run out of air.

Conclusion

This article has described and debunked the “Myths of Air Management.” Understanding the “Point of NO Return” and the “Rule Of Air Management” can help firefighters avoid running out of air in the hazard area and becoming another case study for our program. We hope you will forego believing in myths and put your trust in training firefighters to practice the Rule of Air Management and therefore avoid the “Point of NO Return.”

Steve Bernocco will present “Hands-On Training: The Point of NO Return and the Rule of Air Management” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.


Captain Phil Jose, Captain Casey Phillips, Lieutenant Mike Gagliano and Lieutenant Steve Bernocco are Seattle Fire Department line officers. They have been involved in the development and delivery of Seattle’s Operational Skills Enhancement Training program since its inception. The writers are local and national presenters of the lecture and hands-on training class series “The Point of NO Return.” They created and introduced the Rule of Air Management (ROAM) to the fire service and are industry leaders in air management practices.

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