The Rule of Air Management

Steve Bernocco, Casey Phillips and Phil Jose explore why they trained all Seattle, WA, Fire Department members about air management.


Every structural firefighter knows that his or her self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is critical for working inside a burning building or hazardous atmosphere. The SCBA allows firefighters to breathe air in environments that normally are immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH...


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Every structural firefighter knows that his or her self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is critical for working inside a burning building or hazardous atmosphere. The SCBA allows firefighters to breathe air in environments that normally are immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). Fire departments around the world spend many hours and significant amounts of money training their firefighters how to properly don, operate, problem-solve and work effectively while wearing SCBA. However, what has been overlooked in this SCBA training is the critical concept of air management.

In this article, we will explore why we felt the need to train all Seattle, WA, Fire Department members about air management. We will also explain the new concept of the “Rule of Air Management” and how this rule works on the fireground.

Why Air Management Became Our Number-One Training Priority

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Photo Courtesy of Seattle FD
A firefighter is lucky to be alive after becoming separated from his partner and running out of air during a fire aboard a large fish-processing ship.

The Seattle Fire Department has experienced several “near misses” over the last several years in regard to firefighters not managing the air in their SCBA while working in IDLH atmospheres. Two of our firefighters came close to death as a direct result of air management issues.

Our first “near miss” occurred at an old, three-story apartment building of ordinary construction. The first floor was occupied by a meat company, while the other two floors were being used as an apartment/hotel, mostly for transient-type individuals.

The fire started in a third-story apartment and quickly found its way into the cockloft. A ladder officer and his partner were searching on the third floor in zero visibility when the low-air alarm bell on the ladder officer’s SCBA began to ring. Because of the heavy smoke conditions and the unusual floor plan of the building, both firefighters became disoriented and could not find their way to the safety of the stairwell. The ladder officer soon ran out of air and placed his low-pressure hose into his bunker coat in an attempt to filter his breath. His partner’s low-air warning bell had begun to ring as well, and both firefighters understood the seriousness of their situation.

As they continued down the hallway, the ladder officer and his partner soon came across an engine company. These firefighters quickly realized the ladder team’s low-air situation and led them into an apartment off the hallway, where they attempted to give both firefighters an emergency low-air transfill. Due in part to the zero visibility environment of the apartment and because the ladder officer’s low-pressure hose was disconnected from his regulator, the ladder officer never received a successful transfill. His partner, however, did receive a successful transfill.

At this point, the ladder officer quickly made his way to the apartment window in order to get a breath of fresh air. But due to the amount and pressure of the smoke coming from floor three, all he got were several lungfuls of ugly, black smoke. He then stuck his head out the window in another attempt to breathe some good air.

With his head out the window, he noticed that the adjacent building had a flat roof, and that this roof appeared to be only six or eight feet below him. He knew he needed to get off the fire floor, so he told the firefighters he was with that he was going to drop onto the adjacent roof. He climbed out the window, held onto the sill and let go, expecting to fall only several feet to the flat roof below. Instead, he fell three stories – the adjacent building was separated from the fire building by a three-foot gap that extended all the way to the ground.

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