Air-Bag Operations – Part 5: Placing the System Into Operation

The fifth segment in the series on air-bag operations addresses the factors associated with stacking air bags, proper placement and procedures for assembling the system for a safe lifting operation.

All components that were discussed in Article 1 of this series need to be assembled. Prior to assembly, it is vital that members check that all pneumatic valves are closed to make sure an uncontrolled lift does not occur. Members should check the air supply valve on the regulator, the dead man switches on the controller, and possibly the closing of the remote shutoffs to the air bags.

Members should begin by attaching the regulator to the air supply. The air supply should not be turned on at this point. Members should recheck that the inline air supply valve on the regulator is in the “off” position. The pneumatic hose going to the controller will be attached to the regulator. The controller’s dead man switches should be cycled to ensure they are not sticking open. Attached to the controller will be the pneumatic hoses, or remote shutoffs (or pigtails) then pneumatic hoses, leading to the air bags themselves. The air bags should be connected to the hoses prior to placement. Try to have different colored hoses going to each bag to make calling the lift easier. As discussed earlier, have the lower bag’s hose attached to the left side of the controller. Additional information on calling the lift will be covered in the next article.

Once everything is connected and the valves have been double checked, members can turn on the air supply. The gauge on the regulator closest to the supply is the high pressure gauge; it should read the same as the air supply’s gauge. The regulator gauge farthest from the air supply is the low pressure gauge, and adjusting the large knob on the regulator sets the operating pressure (see Photo 6). The operating pressure should be adjusted to the manufacturer’s recommendation, which is stamped on the air bags themselves. Do not keep the regulator pre-set to the operation pressure. Keeping the operating pressure set all the time will eventually weaken the regulator spring to the extent that it cannot achieve the desired pressure.

After the regulator is set, the inline air supply valve going to the controller can be opened. Once it is open, readjust the operating pressure as needed. At this point the system is ready to inflate the air bags using the controller. If remote shutoffs are in place, they will need to be opened to allow airflow.


It is important that members understand how to build a structurally sound system to maintain stability and how to safely place the air bags. Without proper placement of the air bags, the load can shift or the air bags can “kick out,” which could potentially prove fatal. If the system is not assembled correctly, uncontrolled lifts can occur that could place victims and rescuers in danger. A properly constructed system will allow for a smooth rescue operation and will result in a safe outcome.

JONATHAN HALL is currently a firefighter with the Saint Paul, MN, Fire Department. He previously served as a training and safety officer for the Township Fire Department in Eau Claire, WI. He is a certified fire instructor for the Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire. Jonathan frequently teaches firefighter survival and rapid intervention team concepts in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.