Editor's note: Lt. Richard L. Wilson is a colon cancer survivor. He returned to active duty two months after he was diagnosed in 2004.
I am sure many of us have heard, "relax, you have plenty of air left" during any if not all controlled training evolutions regarding the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and the low-pressure alarm. As we enter the fire service and go through recruit school our instructors tell us we have "plenty of air to get through the evolution," "Don't worry about it, you are safe," "This is training," and the list goes on and on. The true issue is that we are placing a low regard to air supply versus consumption as we teach the new recruits and seasoned veterans. Air supply and consumption should be at the forefront of every training session when using an SCBA.
If we start in the academy teaching that when the low-pressure alarm sounds we actually have plenty of air, then how do we expect our firefighters who we now lead to react when the alarm sounds? Do you monitor your air supply as you enter, crawl or exit the building? As I have done many times before, I think to myself "I can get out if I really have to." The truth be told, we should be looking at exiting the building when we have half a bottle. The hazmat teams have this down pat. Being on a hazmat team for years, the training sessions drilled that into us. The entry officer knows the exact time on air and the time to remove them. How did we, as firefighters, get away from the air supply monitoring, the one thing that may assist us with saving our own life? I will visit three of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives as I feel they pertain to this issue.
The first initiative is # 1 – Cultural Change: A call to action for all firefighters/officers to watch your crew's air supply. Time management is a huge thing when working in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere. Do not pass the point of no return in respect to air supply. As an incident commander, aides may need to be assigned (if not already done) so to assist with regards to air supply management. We can take a page from the hazmat teams on air management and specify the allotted time to be inside before being called out for a bottle change at minimum. I am not here to direct anyone on how to do their air management, just share an idea that may spark conversation and/or policy to build in that safety margin and which I was able to see work and participate in for years. Think back to when to you completed the hazardous material operations decontamination practical. As veterans mature within the fire service and challenge more advanced classes, we need to address these areas with regards to SCBA use and supply/consumption.
The second initiative is #5 – Training and Certification: During all training we must start enhancing the air supply situation and when an evolution is complete, refill cylinders for a new evolution. This would include all recruit academies along with maturing leaders. I know many of us do not have the means to refill at training sites or acquired structures and cost certainly comes to mind. This would be a risk versus benefit area we want to ingrain into new and seasoned veterans. That being said, we now need to think out of the box and secure the means to do so. We all have made comments about "not training like its real," "Oh, we will never do that," or "This is a bunch of horse stuff," and again the list goes on and on. If we expect our firefighters to survive until retirement, we need to start by setting up the means to succeed today. This may include having a neighboring community who has a cascade system being included at your training site. This also promotes working together and identifying any issues that can be resolved before the bell rings.