SCBA Abilities & Skills

Many firefighters swing the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) over their shoulders pand onto their backs with little thought of the complexity of the equipment and the extreme hazards that they will be operating in when wearing it. There are several skills and abilities that a firefighter needs to develop, practice and understand in order to operate safely and effectively while wearing SCBA. They are not all technical and complicated. Some are as simple as being able to locate, loosen and retighten a shoulder strap; others are more complex.

The important point here is that every firefighter who wears an SCBA is obligated to be thoroughly familiar with all of its features, accessories, belts, switches, knobs and hoses. All of these items are used to put the SCBA on, take it off or handle it during an emergency and need to be handled while wearing gloves and with reduced or zero visibility. Let's take a look at several of these skills and abilities and how to properly perform them.

We can begin by examining the straps that hold the SCBA onto our backs. Most SCBA have a single waist strap and two shoulder straps. Waist straps most often connect in the center using a seatbelt-type buckle. The length is adjusted by tightening or loosening the strap through an alligator clip on either hip. The shoulder straps simply tighten and loosen using the same type of alligator clip, located up toward the shoulder on each strap.

It is important for firefighters to tighten and adjust all straps every time SCBA is worn. Failure to connect the waist strap is probably the most frequent violation firefighters commit. Failure to connect this strap seriously inhibits your ability to perform the SCBA emergency procedures we will discuss next. Many firefighters have difficulty loosening and retightening these straps while wearing gloves because they have not trained to do so.

There are two emergency procedures that SCBA users must be absolutely proficient at: the reduced-profile maneuver and the quick-release maneuver. Both of these maneuvers can save your life if you need to get through a reduced-size opening or if your SCBA becomes tangled or caught on an object. Failure to know and practice these maneuvers condemns a trapped or tangled firefighter to serious injury or death.

There are variations based on SCBA design, but generally both maneuvers start with the right shoulder strap being loosened and the right arm being removed. The next step for the reduced profile is to grasp the waist strap at the front center and the base of the bottle at the rear center and rotate the bottle toward the left and under the left arm. This position has reduced the firefighter's profile or thickness and allows him or her to get through a reduced opening. Step two for the quick release is to grasp the top of the left shoulder strap with the left hand and simultaneously release the waist strap with the right. Once the waist strap is released, the firefighter can step away, turn to face the tangled SCBA and begin working on getting it untangled. Both procedures are outlined in just about every training manual and firefighter survival text. Go get one, look at the pictures and practice!

Some other areas that need attention are running out of air and getting untangled. Running out of air is not something that you should expect, but it is something that you need to be prepared to handle. We are not discussing the situations or operations that could result in you being out of air, but rather how to handle this deadly predicament. When you finally take your last breath and your facepiece collapses onto your face, you need to quickly remove your regulator or hose from the facepiece. Some SCBA have other features that let you switch from your air supply to outside air. This is going to be dirty, smoky and soot-filled contaminated air. Filter your intake air using a gloved hand, hood or other material over the facepiece opening. Stay low, breathe slowly and try to make your way out of the smoke.

If you become tangled while wearing an SCBA, you must stop, back up and try to free yourself from the entanglement. If this does not work, you must use your hands to find what you are tangled with and release it or cut it with a wire cutter. Your cutter needs to be easily accessible and able to cut substantial wire or rope.

All of the above skills are mandatory. There are no options inside a burning building when you need to maneuver, remove or untangle your SCBA. Head out to the apparatus floor, pull your SCBA from the rig and start practicing these SCBA skills - your life depends on it!

JOHN J. SALKA JR., a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran battalion chief with FDNY, the commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. Salka has instructed at several FDNY training programs, including the department's Probationary Firefighters School, Captains Management Program and Battalion Chiefs Command Course. He conducts training programs at national and local conferences and has been recognized for his firefighter survival course "Get Out Alive." Salka co-authored the FDNY Engine Company Operations manual and wrote the book Forged in Fire: Leadership Lessons of the FDNY. He also operates Fire Command Training (, a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.