One Skill, One Drill, One Hour: Quick SCBA Confidence Course

Feb. 20, 2006
One definition of confidence is having done something before and knowing you can do it again.


One definition of confidence is having done something before and knowing you can do it again. Getting into and out of tight spaces in full turnout and SCBA might not be something you do on a regular basis, but if it had to be done, it would be great to know how. That is where a good SCBA obstacle course comes in handy. A permanent SCBA confidence course is a luxury that few departments can afford, but a great training tool.

The New Milford, NJ, Fire Department has been working on one for several months, and it is nearing completion, but when the urge to do training hits, it is hard to wait for next month, or even next week, so I wanted to build one in house that could be set up and broken down with relative ease and speed. It had to be: difficult but not impossible, had to promote good, safe practices (if you are not practicing good habits, then you are practicing bad ones), and had to hold the interest of the members participating.


The drill objective would be to put the firefighters through a course in full gear and expose them to entanglement hazards, confined spaces, and a full room search in blackout conditions.


A search rope was attached to our Squad 36 and strung through the course. The members were expected to stay in contact with this rope at all times. It was run over a table that was slanted because one end was propped up by hose roll. It then passed under a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood that had been riddled with holes and festooned with wires (don't just twist the wire ends together, as they can be pulled apart; you will need some serious knots). It was propped up on six folding chairs and held in place with four C-clamps and weighed down by hose rolls (this proved to be a lightweight structure, easily moved by large, floundering firefighters, so don't stint on the ballast).

At first I planned to move the engines out onto the apron to get them out of the way, but then realized that having something in the way is the definition of an obstacle course, so I decided to incorporate them into the drill. If you have only one engine in your department, consider running the search rope over and under it two or three times.

The search line then led them up through the crew cab of one engine and out the other side. They then had to follow it under our second engine. (If you have ever crawled under one of the engines, it makes an excellent confined space, and in full turnout it can be positively claustrophobic. Be leery of any fluid spills under the engine however, as they can ruin turnout gear. It would be wise to mop them up first, or move the engine to a drier location.)

The rope then led to our meeting room where firefighter Tom Mulligan, a veteran of several excellent training courses on rapid intervention teams, had agreed to oversee the search section. (At this point, if you had not done so already, it would be good to black out the masks. This can be done with commercially available mask covers, with wax paper or, as we did, simply reversing our hoods.)

Instructors Notes

Firefighters in a drill try to make themselves as comfortable as possible so watch for the shortcuts we all sometimes make, and stop them. Remind everyone (including yourself) that you should practice good habits even in a drill. For example, in our department, most of us have mechanics gloves as well as fire gloves, and prefer to wear them in drills if not stopped. Another shortcut is not wearing hoods, and not fastening the top latches of our coats. If your members don't do it in drills, then they probably won't remember to do it at fire scenes. One that I keep forgetting is to turn on the PASS device. Don't forget, as I did, to hang up accountability tags.

Onto the drill itself

When the firefighters begin, remind them that they should bring along a tool.

As they move down the sloped table, they should be feet first, never head first.

Through the entanglement hazard, they should be on their side, head first, with the SCBA bottle as close to the floor as possible to prevent snagging. They should be sweeping ahead of them with their free arm to push entangling wires upwards and behind them. If they do get snagged, they should back up and start again, and not try to bull through.

As they climb into the first crew cab, they should be on their hands and knees, and descend out the other side feet first, simulating feeling the ground in front of them for holes.

As they crawled under the second piece of apparatus, it might be a good idea to remove the pack, and either drag it alongside or push it ahead of them.

When searching the room, emphasize good, basic, search procedures. Always have a hand or foot in contact with a wall. At regular intervals, run your hand as far up the walls as possible to mimic feeling for windows. Do a hand sweep above and below furniture. If you have to put a tool down, don't risk losing it; instead, place it under your knee and you will always know where to find it (if your firefighters do just put it down, steal it from them and make them search for it). To search a rooms center, lay full length with one foot on a wall and sweep the floor ahead of you with your hand tool. Communicate with your partner if you have one with you. Stop at regular intervals and listen for strange noises. The person overseeing this section should stop the searcher once or twice and ask them to point towards their exit. You would be surprised how easy it is to get turned around even in a room you know intimately.

A good closing activity

It occurs to me that a quick drill I put together once is a good end to any drill using SCBA. When all is said and done, place two firefighters in the smallest closet you have with no lights and ask them to switch bottles in the dark. For extra fun, have one collapse against a wall and simulate unconsciousness. Or, have them switch packs but keep the same bottles. This proved to be too quick to be a stand alone drill, but it is a nice finisher, don't you think?


To submit your department's drill ideas, please e-mail Peter Matthews,'s Content Manager.

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