Training with SCBA: Is Yours Real, or Misleading?

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.

This was very evident when I had the pleasure to observe structure training (with no fire) with an academy class. We had them run their bottles down to empty and remove the mask-mounted regulator if they ran out, yet continue the training. What were we thinking? We weren't! In my opinion, we helped minimize the safety issue of the low-air warning to brand new recruits! I can tell you this very next academy will not have this as a standard. This was a change in culture. Now think back to when you had SCBA training, other than consumption tests, when you were able to complete two evolutions before refilling a cylinder. What will you do differently next time?

The third initiative is #16 Apparatus and Safety: Most everyone in the fire service has an SCBA that has a low-pressure alarm. Do you know what tones it makes for low air versus sitting still? Are you well versed in the use of it? Do you have a heads-up display that will show you how much air you have left? Does your gauge reflect and is it reading the right pressure (within 10% of the bottle)? With the districts or municipalities purchasing the latest and greatest equipment and apparatus to aid in keeping their firefighters safe, are we ignoring the sounds? If we become trapped within a structure without knowing our air supply beforehand it may have disastrous results. Remember what LUNAR stands for? Can you complete this in a low-air supply situation? If you monitor your air supply, you should not become part of the problem. Try and use the method: half of a bottle to my location and another half bottle to remove myself from the same location without becoming trapped. If we work inside the IDLH atmosphere until three quarters of our air is consumed or until our low-pressure alarm sounds, then we try to leave the area, we may just be asking for a catastrophic problem to occur. Sure many of us laughed when we came out and the air ran out as we stepped over the threshold, me included many of times. This is not a cool thing to show our replacements. I can tell you this; if we continue to do this, the junior firefighters will become our replacements sooner than we wanted. This is not a standard practice we want to set for anybody following our lead. Everyone in empowered to start change, what are you waiting for?


I want to leave everyone with this thought. With all the new equipment that is available, along with mutual aid, we can change this culture; the one of overlooking training our firefighters to act like they would in a real-life situation. I am sure nobody reading this goes to an incident and consumes three-quarters of their air supply (SCBA) then places their air pack in service for the next incident without refilling it. Why do we do this on the training ground? Seek out ways to refill cylinders at training by securing a mutual aid cascade or have the students bring additional bottles for all the evolutions. Instructors, you need to build in time for refilling cylinders into your training plan. Starting all new academies with this mindset will allow us to assist with lowering the line-of-duty deaths in this county. Doing this change in culture with the current firefighters at all training facilities will empower them to identify needs and request changes within an organization. This by no means is meant to change anyone's operating procedures, just assist with identifying a cultural change with regards to firefighter safety while using equipment meant to complete given tasks. ?

RICHARD WILSON is lieutenant with the Bartlett, IL, Fire Protection District assigned to a tower company with 23 years in the fire service. He is a past member of hazardous materials and technical rescue teams. Wilson is a deputy chief with the Monroe Township, IL, Fire Protection District, an instructor of fire science programs with the Elgin Community College and is completing his bachelor's degree in fire science administration with Eastern Kentucky University.