Rapid Intervention - Emergency Air Supply

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Emergency air supply is a critical function that must be considered by the rapid intervention team. In most instances, when a Mayday is broadcast for missing, downed, or injured firefighters, locating the firefighter and ensuring adequate air supply are the most important functions the RIT can provide, prior to getting them out.

SCBA Incompatibilities
Low Pressure, High Pressure, Different Brand

The first step in dealing with incompatible equipment is to preplan prior to the emergency. Survey the surrounding departments and find out who has what. A couple of phone calls is all this step takes - and they're local!

The second step in dealing with this problem is familiarization. During the phone call, ask if you can borrow an SCBA so that members of your department can become familiar with it. Why is this important if you're bringing a fully-functional unit with you? This allows you to become familiar with the unit, check out the straps and how they adjust, how the unit goes on and can be removed, and how the face piece and regulator are attached. When operating as part of a RIT, in a no visibility environment, it may be your job to secure a firefighters air supply. That's not the time to become familiar with the equipment.

The third step is hands-on training! All firefighters should be given the assignment of securing the air supply of a downed firefighter that is using a different brand SCBA. The training should be done in no visibility conditions.

What tools and equipment do you bring as part of your rapid intervention team assignment? Are you prepared to deal with air supply problems of the distressed firefighters located by the RIT? Are your RITs taking a complete SCBA units (or streamlined versions, RIT Air Pack) with them when they are deployed? Have all members of the RIT been trained to quickly resolve any air supply problems encountered? In zero visibility conditions?

Does your department use personal quick-connect regulators or masks? What about surrounding departments? Is your equipment compatible with all other departments you respond with? Have you planned for incompatibilities? The list of questions on emergency air supply can go on and on.

There are a few options available to secure the air supply of a distressed firefighter.

Depending on the distance inside the building, and the proximity to an exit (window, door, safe area inside the building, etc.), one of the quickest ways to solve a low air situation is to remove the firefighter from the environment.

When choosing this option the RIT should be certain that they can get-in and get-out without problems and that the removal time would be quicker than securing the air supply of the downed firefighter. Tough call!

Many of today's SCBA units are equipped with buddy-breathing capabilities. By using a buddy-breathing hose two similar SCBA units can be attached and the air supply shared. An advantage of this operation is that the air supply of the distressed firefighter is never interrupted.

A major disadvantage is that the air supply is shared and two people are now using whatever air supply was available. Two people, twice-as-fast (roughly). The RIT must find the downed firefighters before addressing air supply (that consumes air). The air remaining after performing the search, coupled with the reduced air supply of the firefighters that were found, may not provide enough air to exit the structure. Remember, searching for and then removing a downed firefighter takes a great deal of effort and increases your air consumption!

Buddy breathing may be viable for inside pairs that run into reduced air situations. It may also work in the event that a downed firefighter is found by an inside crew. The distance inside the building along with the air remaining between firefighters will determine the outcome - Command should still be notified and the RIT activated. For RIT operations a complete RIT Air Pack is a much better option.

By including spare SCBA units (RIT Air Packs) as part of the initial RIT equipment - a full, independent, air supply for the distressed firefighters will be brought into the building with the RIT. With this option, each RIT member's SCBA cylinder is fully available to them. An emergency has already been declared so there's no sense in handicapping the RIT before they begin.

Complete SCBA units, with the harness and straps, can be difficult to manage during an emergency search for firefighters. Preplanning before the emergency will definitely help. What steps need to be performed to secure the air supply of a downed firefighter using the pack you brought in? Is there enough time to strip one SCBA and place a new unit on the firefighter? Are all firefighters on the fireground using the same type of SCBA? If not, what steps need to be performed to secure the air supply?

Most SCBA manufacturers have come out with RIT air packages. Streamlining a few of your own air packs can provide the same result and be more cost-effective (you already own them). If you know your SCBA unit inside-and-out, like you should, then stripping it down to the bare essentials (an easy-to-carry, completely functioning unit) shouldn't be that difficult. Obviously this can't be done for every possible company so there must be a way to ensure that these RIT Air Packs are available for the RIT at the scene.

Make sure the RIT Air Pack includes a face piece. The face piece will be needed if the firefighter is not wearing the same type of SCBA. Another possible use can occur if the firefighter has a damaged face piece.


Securing the air supply using a buddy breathing hose will only work with the same brand SCBA that has been outfitted with the buddy breathing capability.

This option requires that the RIT firefighter be proficient at connecting the buddy breathing hose and ensuring there is adequate air supply, for both firefighters, to exit the area. One other consideration is the length of the buddy breathing hose. If the distance between both firefighters approaches the length of the hose then the air supply of one or both firefighters may be compromised! Keep that in mind when using this option.

The difficulty in securing the air supply using an SCBA brought in with the RIT depends on the type of SCBA being used by the downed firefighter.

Same Brand SCBA If the same brand of SCBA is being used the process involves switching the downed firefighter from their air supply to the new air supply. This may involve a complete regulator swap or a simple quick-connect hose swap. In any case, everything should be ready to go before making the exchange to reduce the amount of exposure to the environment. Once the exchange is made simply secure the RIT pack to the firefighter and remove him.

Different Brand SCBA
When the RIT encounters a different brand SCBA securing the air supply is a bit more involved. In this case, the entire face piece will need to be swapped due to the incompatibilities. As stated above - make sure everything is ready to go before making the swap to ensure minimal exposure to the environment. The new face piece is already attached to the RITpack so once the swap is made simply secure the RIT pack to the firefighter and remove him.


  • Make sure the RIT pack air supply is full before entering and that it's turned on before making the exchange.
  • Leave the existing SCBA in place and utilize the straps to assist in removing the firefighter.
  • Consider incorporating Air Supply Secured as one of the fireground benchmarks for RIT operations.


  • Train all crews on all aspects of RIT emergency air supply operations.
  • Refresh all crews on the use of buddy breathing hoses (if applicable), their advantages, and disadvantages.

Use a vacant structure, training facility, or the apparatus bay to conduct the following RIT emergency air supply training scenarios. Scenarios should progress from familiarization to full-blown, no-visibility, rescues.

Quick Removal from the Environment
This option has limited uses but should be included in all training sessions to avoid tunnel vision during emergency operations. Securing the air supply may be as simple as moving the firefighter to a nearby window and awaiting a ladder! Deploy a RIT to search for a downed firefighter. Place the firefighter in close proximity to a window. When the RIT finds the firefighter they should secure the air supply by removing the firefighter through the window.

Buddy Breathing Exit
All firefighters with buddy breathing capabilities should be proficient at establishing buddy breathing and exiting the building. Set up a scenario where an interior crew comes across a firefighter with a low air emergency. Have a crew member establish buddy breathing and exit the building with the firefighter.

RIT Air Pack
Deploy a RIT to search for a missing firefighter. When the firefighter is found secure his air supply using the RIT air pack. Once secured, remove the firefighter from the building.

Conduct this evolution for each type of SCBA that may be encountered. Make sure to include at least one scenario that requires exchanging the face piece.

Jim McCormack has been a firefighter for 15 years and is currently with the Indianapolis Fire Department. Jim is also the founder and president of the Fire Department Training Network, a membership network dedicated to firefighter training.