SCBA Endurance For Fireground Survival


Imagine yourself sitting steadfast at the kitchen table of the fire station when suddenly the overhead speaker begins to relay the message: "House fire, 227 West 49th Street for Engines 1, 2, 4, Truck 3, Medic 4 and Battalion 1." As the company officer of Engine 1 you know the task before you presents a great deal of stress and work for you and your skeletal staff of two firefighters.

As you begin to approach the subdivision of the involved residence you see a large column of thick velvet like smoke billowing above the tree line, an obvious working fire awaits. Upon arrival, you dismount the apparatus to be met by several frantic residents who tell you there are occupants trapped inside. Your heart pounds feverously as you provide instructions to your crew and incoming units. On scene personnel immediately deploy the necessary tools and a protective hoseline to the front door as your perform a quick 360 size-up of the residence, upon your return you join the supportive cast of the second due company to initiate an aggressive search and rescue operation.

Despite your most noble of efforts, you and your crew are only able to complete a partial search of the residence in which no victims were found. Your low-pressure alarm begins to ring out signaling a need to exit the residence. You and your crew quickly exit the residence to replenish your air supply. Upon exiting, you notice a fireground of skeletal crews performing a multitude of task to support the rescue and suppression effort. Unfortunately, it appears you and your crew will need to reenter to complete the search and rescue operation.

The aforementioned scenario is commonplace across the fire service, and the question of what we can do and should do continues to stifle the best of us. As firefighters, fire officers the like, our training, desires, and adrenal surges push us to the limits in each of these scenarios.

The reality is, we have limitations, and we can only do so much. Our bodies are accustomed to high workloads under stressful conditions, but we still have limitations. As trainers, we must provide our members with an understanding of what these limitations are in a safe and controlled training environment to ensure their safety. Pushing ourselves beyond our personal limitations to overcome physical shortcomings presented by minimally staffed fire grounds ensures our death and injury rate will remain unchanged.

This training program has been designed to proactively identify your member's limitations and capabilities in the use of self-contained breathing apparatus while performing eight common tasks routinely performed on the modern fireground.


The use of self-contained breathing apparatus is an essential tool of the trade in the modern fire service with which we all must know our limitations in its use. This endurance course is designed to identify the limitations of the wearer in a safe and effective training environment; although this program is not scientific in nature, it is a very basic program to measure the capabilities and limitations of our members using very basic tools and equipment which are readily available to most fire departments.


Due to the physical nature of this exercise, it is strongly recommended that all participants have a baseline physical (as required by N.F.P.A. 1582 or equivalent). Due to the physical nature of this exercise, no member shall be allowed to participate if a known medical condition exist which may contribute to further injury or risk. The objective of this training program shall be to identify the participant's personal limitations and physical capabilities in a safe and effective training environment.


Prior to performing any type of endurance training it is strongly recommended that a medical standby crew be on-site to provide medical evaluation and treatment in accordance with local EMS protocols. Medical standby crews shall consist of at least two BLS trained personnel with the necessary tools and equipment. ALS trained personnel with transport capabilities are preferred.


As with any strenuous training session, a rehab station should be setup to ensure proper rehabilitation of the participants prior to and after each evolution. Recommended rehab supplies should include as a minimum: Water cooler w/ ice, cups, some type of electrolyte replacement solution, proper cover from direct sunlight (i.e. tent) chairs or benches for participants and if possible a misting system to allow for immediate cool down.


  • Each member is provided one S.C.B.A. w/ 2 cylinders filled to capacity (i.e. 4500 psi.).

  • Participants are medically screened prior to the evolution (Including: blood-pressure, pulse, respirations).

  • Vital signs and starting S.C.B.A. pressure are documented.

  • Each participant is then instructed to begin the course at a comfortable pace - NO RUNNING is permitted.

  • Participants are instructed to complete as many tasks/stations as possible without stopping. Partially completed stations will not be counted.

  • Participants continue this process until their low-pressure alarm activates at which point their low-pressure activation time is documented.

  • Members will continue through the course until they reach total exhaustion and/or run out of air at which point their total operating time is documented.

  • Members are provided a 1-minute rest period followed by a second medical screening.

  • Members are provided with a 15-minute break to allow for rehabilitation and fluid replacement.

  • Participants then repeat the process using their second cylinder beginning with medical screening.



15_scba2.jpg Station 1 - Ladder climb

Equipment Required: 12'-16' Straight ladder

Simulation: This station is designed to simulate the task of climbing and descending a ladder to perform a task on a roof or upper levels during a firefighting operation.

Evaluation: Firefighters should be evaluated on their ability to climb and descend the ladder in a controlled manner throughout the evolution. Specific attention should be placed on the member's balance and coordination as he/she completes the task.

Safety Alert: As members become more and more fatigued, strict supervision should be provided to ensure the safety of the member as he/she climbs and descends the ladder.

Recommended Procedure: Members are instructed to climb a 12'- 16' straight ladder to the second to last rung, touch the specified rung, descend, and proceed to Station 2.

15_scba3.jpg Station 2 - Traffic Cone Fatigue Test

Equipment Required: Eight (8) 24" traffic cones (spread out in two rows of 4, 8' apart), two (2) softballs, and two (2) baseballs placed on top of the cones.

Simulation: This station is designed as an evaluation station of early fatigue and coordination compromise. This station can be related to the participant's ability to carry out various tasks on the fireground that require hand and eye coordination (i.e. forcible entry in which the firefighter would be required to swing a flat head axe and make contact with a Halligan bar).

Evaluation: Participants should be evaluated on their ability to properly place the balls atop the traffic cone in a controlled and coordinated manner. As the participant becomes more fatigued, coordination levels will be reduced and the task will become more and more challenging.

Recommended Procedure: Members are required to pick up a softball/baseball and carry it over to the next cone (walking in a figure 8 or "S" formation). This process continues until all the balls are moved to the opposite side. Members are then instructed to proceed to Station 3.

15_scba4.jpg Station 3 - 1 ?" Hose Drag

Equipment required: 100' of 1 ?" hose, one (1) 1 ?" nozzle and six (6) traffic cones.

Simulation: This station replicates the advancement of a charged hoseline and the operation of the nozzle upon reaching the specified target (i.e. fire).

Evaluation: Participants should be evaluated on their ability to properly advance and control the hoseline throughout the evolution while maintaining control of the nozzle as he/she attempts to hit the specified target.

Recommended Procedure: Members are instructed to pull a 50' section of 1 ?" hose 50 feet, open the nozzle and knock over a traffic cone placed approximately 10' beyond the line. Members are then instructed to proceed to Station 4.

15_scba5.jpg Station 4 - Pike pole / Ceiling pull simulation

Equipment Required: (1) Weighted pike pole or pry bar

Simulation: This station is designed to replicate the actions necessary to perform overhaul (i.e. ceiling pull) or check for spot fires in the overhead.

Evaluation: Participants should be evaluated on their ability to properly control the pike pole or pry bar while ensuring the participant fully extends and lowers his/her arms a total of fifteen (15) times.

Recommended Procedure: Members are instructed to raise and lower a weighted pike pole or pry bar simulating the action of pulling a ceiling - (15) times. Members are then instructed to proceed to Station 5.

15_scba6.jpg Station 5 - Vertical ventilation simulator

Equipment Required: 1 Kaiser sled or equivalent with a dead blow hammer.

Simulation: This station simulates the actions required during vertical ventilation operations and /or forcible entry activities.

Evaluation: Participants should be evaluated on their ability to properly swing/control the hammer in order to drive the beam to the specified location. Strict emphasis should be placed on balance, technique, and coordination throughout the evolution.

Recommended Procedure: Members are instructed to drive the beam with a dead blow hammer a distance of 2', turn around and drive it back 2'. Members are then instructed to proceed to Station 6.

15_scba7.jpg Station 6 - Search simulator

Equipment: 1 - 24" X 24" X 8' wood box

Simulation: This station simulates a firefighter performing a search will maintaining a low profile.

Evaluation: While no specific search actions are required, participants should be evaluated on their ability to assume a low profile position while crawling though a restricted area.

Recommended Procedure: Members are required to crawl through the box and proceed to Station 7.

15_scba8.jpg Station 7 Rescue drag

Equipment: 1 - Rescue mannequin, 6 traffic cones

Simulation: This station simulates a firefighter dragging a victim from a structure during a rescue operation.

Evaluation: Participants should be evaluated on the use of proper lifting techniques (emphasizing the use of their legs rather than their back for lifting) and his/her ability to successfully drag the victim to the specified location.

Safety Alert: Due to the high risk of back injuries during this evolution, instructors should closely monitor lifting techniques (continuously stress proper lifting techniques) and participant fatigue to avoid overexertion.

Recommended Procedure: Members are instructed to drag a weighted mannequin (175 lbs.) approximately 25' around an obstacle and back. Members are then instructed to proceed to Station 8.

15_scba9.jpg Station 8 - Hose carry

Equipment Required: 2 small tables (approximately 3' X 3'), 2 traffic cones, 2 tape/bound sections of 3" hose.

Simulation: This station simulates a firefighter picking up and moving various equipment, supplies on the fireground.

Evaluation: Participants should be evaluated on the use of proper lifting techniques (emphasizing the use of their legs rather than their back for lifting) and his/her ability to successfully pick up and carry the provided sections of hose to the specified location.

Recommended Procedure: Members are instructed to pick up and carry one (1) section of 3" hose rolled and strapped a distance of 40' and place it on a table approximately 3' x 3'. Members are then required to pick up a second section of 3" hose and carry it 40' back to the original table.


Members are graded on their overall endurance (air consumption / minute) and the number of tasks/station completed.


  • Estimated Escape Time: Time at which low-pressure alarm activation occurs until the member is no longer receiving adequate air to continue or at which time the firefighter is unable to complete an additional task. (Example: Total evolution time 22:15 - L/P Alarm activation time 17:30 = Estimated escape time: 4:45 minutes.

  • Estimated S.C.B.A. Operating Time: Total time the member is able to physically perform the designated task in an acceptably safe and coordinated manner = Total endurance drill time: 22:15.

  • Estimated Air Consumption Rate: Rate at which member consumes the supplied air throughout the operation. Starting pressure 4500psi / S.C.B.A. Operating Time 22:15 = Air consumption rate of 200 psi./minute.




  • By completing this program your firefighters will have a better understanding of his/her limitations when operating on the fireground.

  • Participants will have an understanding of the signs and symptoms they personally experience once they become fatigued, this enables the firefighter to request rehabilitation prior to initiating additional labor-intensive tasks.

  • Participants will also have an understanding of approximately how much time they have following a low-pressure alarm activation to total air depletion.

Company Officers/Incident Commanders

  • Company Officers /Incident Commanders can use this information when considering assignments during fireground operations.

  • High endurance members can be assigned more labor-intensive task without the fear of early fatigue.

  • Crew assignments and continuity of performance levels are enhanced by providing an equally balanced crew to perform a designated task reducing the potential of early exits due to a crewmember's early low-pressure alarm activation.




Air supply limitations are based on following:

  • Physical condition of the user - A firefighter in poor physical condition will undoubtedly expend his/her air supply at a faster rate compared to a firefighter in peak physical condition. Additionally, firefighters who are larger in physical stature have a tendency to consume air at a higher rate than firefighters with a lesser build.

  • Physical exertion levels - The aforementioned endurance course is considered a moderate workload for the average firefighter. Physical exertion levels directly relate to the consumption rate of the working member, higher exertion levels will cause the firefighter to expend his/her air supply at a faster rate.

  • Emotional reactions - Firefighters will react to situations in a variety of ways emotionally and physically. Firefighters who become exited or anxious while wearing an SCBA will experience an increase in their respiratory rate causing an increased consumption rate.

  • Condition of the SCBA - SCBA's in poor repair or improperly fitted will leak and allow air to flow freely thereby reducing the members overall working time.

  • Starting pressure - As stated, SCBA cylinders should be filled to their capacity before use to ensure adequate results.

  • Training and Experience Levels - Members who are well trained and comfortable in the use of an SCBA have a tendency to control there breathing rates and overall consumption rate more appropriately. Prior to performing any type of endurance training, members should be provided with a detailed SCBA training course including confidence training to ensure optimal performance.


During any type of endurance training, members should be encouraged to concentrate on there breathing techniques. Controlled breathing techniques will ensure optimum performance and prolonged operating times. Suggested breathing techniques include:

  • Nose Breathing: Breathing in through your nose results in shorter breaths. Inhalation through your nose will usually fill the lungs to less than their capacity enabling the inhaled air to be utilized entirely.

  • Mouth Breathing: Breathing in through your mouth results in a more rapid respiratory rate in which your body cannot take full advantage of oxygen before exhalation

In order to control your consumption rate, members should attempt to breath in through their nose and exhale through their mouth. Members should be instructed to take in slow deep breaths to allow the air to be held in the lungs for maximum oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. Exhalation should be out through the mouth in a controlled manner. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HOLD YOU BREATH.

As the member becomes more fatigued he/she will begin to breath through his/her mouth in an effort to take in more air. Members should be instructed to inhale through their mouth, breathe in slow and deep, attempt to hold the air in there lungs for 3-4 seconds for maximum oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange. In order for optimal air exchange without holding there breath the process of breathing in through their mouth and out through their nose should be continued.

The best method for strenuous work is the five-second-count method: Inhale for 5 seconds using either of the first two methods - slowly and fully, hold for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, repeat cycle.


SKIP BREATHING - Emergency Use Only

In an emergency situation, the use of a skip-breathing can enable a firefighter to prolong his/her air supply in excess of two hours when using a traditional 30 minute air supply. This technique should NOT be attempted during highly strenuous endurance training rather for emergency situations when a firefighter must prolong his/her air supply when trapped or disoriented in a hazardous environment.

Technique: If trapped, lost or disoriented: Remain as calm as possible, notify command and activate your PASS alarm. Inhale fully, hold your breath for normal exhalation time, take an additional breath before exhaling, and exhale slowly. This cycle should be repeated until the air supply is exhausted or the firefighter is successfully rescued or removed from the environment.


The fire service has long been identified as a hazardous occupation in which an average of one hundred firefighters lose their lives each year. Unquestionably, proper training and strict enforcement of standard operating guidelines could have prevented many of these fatal occurrences. This program has been designed to provide a proactive approach to training firefighters to better understand their personal limitations in the use and operation of self-contained breathing apparatus in hopes of preventing the all too familiar trend of firefighter fatalities due to stress and/or overexertion on the modern fireground.


As I conclude this article, I'd like to dedicate this program to the 225 firefighters who have lost their lives due to stress or overexertion from 1996-01. This article is dedicated to ensuring that we the fire service learn from the past in hopes of providing a safer future.

Tim is a 17 - year student and educator of the fire & emergency services, a former Assistant Fire Chief for Missouri City Fire & Rescue Services, Texas and a former Firefighter/Paramedic with the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department. Tim has earned B.S. degrees in Fire Administration, Arson and an A.S. degree in Emergency Medical Care from Eastern Kentucky University. Tim is a contributing editor to numerous publications including the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) monthly publication The Voice and the Fire & Emergency Television Network (FETN) in which he is the writer/developer of the featured "SURVIVAL!" program. You can contact Tim by e-mail at: