The Rule of Air Management

July 1, 2004
Steve Bernocco, Casey Phillips and Phil Jose explore why they trained all Seattle, WA, Fire Department members about air management.
Every structural firefighter knows that his or her self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is critical for working inside a burning building or hazardous atmosphere. The SCBA allows firefighters to breathe air in environments that normally are immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH). Fire departments around the world spend many hours and significant amounts of money training their firefighters how to properly don, operate, problem-solve and work effectively while wearing SCBA. However, what has been overlooked in this SCBA training is the critical concept of air management.

In this article, we will explore why we felt the need to train all Seattle, WA, Fire Department members about air management. We will also explain the new concept of the “Rule of Air Management” and how this rule works on the fireground.

Why Air Management Became Our Number-One Training Priority

Photo Courtesy of Seattle FD A firefighter is lucky to be alive after becoming separated from his partner and running out of air during a fire aboard a large fish-processing ship.

The Seattle Fire Department has experienced several “near misses” over the last several years in regard to firefighters not managing the air in their SCBA while working in IDLH atmospheres. Two of our firefighters came close to death as a direct result of air management issues.

Our first “near miss” occurred at an old, three-story apartment building of ordinary construction. The first floor was occupied by a meat company, while the other two floors were being used as an apartment/hotel, mostly for transient-type individuals.

The fire started in a third-story apartment and quickly found its way into the cockloft. A ladder officer and his partner were searching on the third floor in zero visibility when the low-air alarm bell on the ladder officer’s SCBA began to ring. Because of the heavy smoke conditions and the unusual floor plan of the building, both firefighters became disoriented and could not find their way to the safety of the stairwell. The ladder officer soon ran out of air and placed his low-pressure hose into his bunker coat in an attempt to filter his breath. His partner’s low-air warning bell had begun to ring as well, and both firefighters understood the seriousness of their situation.

As they continued down the hallway, the ladder officer and his partner soon came across an engine company. These firefighters quickly realized the ladder team’s low-air situation and led them into an apartment off the hallway, where they attempted to give both firefighters an emergency low-air transfill. Due in part to the zero visibility environment of the apartment and because the ladder officer’s low-pressure hose was disconnected from his regulator, the ladder officer never received a successful transfill. His partner, however, did receive a successful transfill.

At this point, the ladder officer quickly made his way to the apartment window in order to get a breath of fresh air. But due to the amount and pressure of the smoke coming from floor three, all he got were several lungfuls of ugly, black smoke. He then stuck his head out the window in another attempt to breathe some good air.

With his head out the window, he noticed that the adjacent building had a flat roof, and that this roof appeared to be only six or eight feet below him. He knew he needed to get off the fire floor, so he told the firefighters he was with that he was going to drop onto the adjacent roof. He climbed out the window, held onto the sill and let go, expecting to fall only several feet to the flat roof below. Instead, he fell three stories – the adjacent building was separated from the fire building by a three-foot gap that extended all the way to the ground.

The ladder officer survived the fall. He broke his back and his shoulder and suffered a concussion and severe carbon monoxide poisoning. After a long, painful recovery, he is back to work with his ladder company. However, he understands how lucky he is to be alive. He also will be the first person to admit that until that fire, he never really thought much about managing the air in his SCBA. He mistakenly believed, as many firefighters do today, that firefighters only need to leave the fire building when the low-air warning bell begins to ring on their SCBA.

Our second “near miss” occurred at a large ship fire. The vessel was a 300-foot-long fish processor that was docked on a pier in the Ballard area of Seattle. The fire was down in the main processing deck, where the fish is processed, packed and then stored in a refrigerated hold.

The first-in engine company reported heavy, black smoke from the vessel. The firefighters dropped a manifold on the dock by a below-deck entrance and extended a 13¼4-inch handline off a 21¼2-inch hose. The officer took command, and the driver laid the supply line to the hydrant.

After connecting the 21¼2-inch hose to the manifold, the other two firefighters from this engine company masked up and went into the ship through a dockside access. This access placed them several decks below the main deck of the ship. Immediately, they were met with heavy smoke conditions. They maneuvered the hoseline down the lower deck about 160 feet, until they saw the orange glow of the fire. They then put water on the fire and knocked it down.

At this point, one of the firefighters (Firefighter A) went back down the smoke-filled deck to pull some more hose, leaving another firefighter (Firefighter B) on the nozzle. Firefighter A never rejoined Firefighter B. Firefighter A mistakenly ran into another team and thought he was rejoining his partner. Soon afterwards, Firefighter B’s low-air warning bell began to ring. Firefighter B dropped the hose and began to crawl his way out of the ship, following the hose. Unfortunately, he came upon several coils of hose and got turned around. He followed the hose back up to the nozzle. Realizing his mistake, he went back down the hoseline and ran into another engine company entering the ship. They pointed him in the right direction and continued toward the fire location.

It was at this point that Firefighter B’s bottle ran out of air. He immediately took off his facepiece in order to breathe. He sucked in five or six breaths of black smoke. Luckily, another team of firefighters found him crawling around in the smoke and helped him out of the ship. Medics transported him to a medical center, where he was treated for smoke inhalation and later released.

This firefighter is extremely fortunate to be alive. He became separated from his partner and then ran out of air in a very dangerous environment. He understands how close he came to death and admits that he never checked the amount of air in his bottle until his low-air warning bell began to ring.

These two near fatalities have one thing in common – the failure of the firefighter to manage his air supply effectively.

At the beginning of 2002, we were asked to design and implement a hands-on training day for all Seattle Fire Department members in the Operations Division. We decided early on that the focus of the training should be around the concept of air management. This was a completely new idea for the Seattle Fire Department. None of us had ever been trained upon the concept of air management.

Our decision to focus on air management was based mainly on the two near fatalities discussed above. We knew that we had to retrain our members on how to manage their air supply. We didn’t want any of our firefighters to repeat the mistakes of the past.

What Is Air Management?

As probationary firefighters in drill school, every member of our fire department has been taught that when their SCBA low-air warning bell begins to ring, it is time to grab his or her partner and leave the building. We have been told that we have approximately six minutes of air left in our SCBA bottle when the warning bell begins ringing, and that this is enough air for us to get out the fire building or any IDLH atmosphere where we might be working. And for years, no one ever questioned that assumption.

Historically, the majority of our fires in Seattle occur in single-family dwellings or apartment houses. This is probably true for many fire departments in the United States, with notable exceptions in the biggest cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And it is these house fires and apartment fires that have dictated how firefighters train to use their SCBA.

Photo Courtesy of Seattle FD Failing to manage his air supply could have proved deadly for a firefighter operating aboard a burning fish-processing ship. Fellow firefighters found him crawling in heavy smoke, his air supply depleted.

For the most part, at a house fire, firefighters can exit the fire building safely when the low-air warning bell begins to ring on their SCBA. Houses have many openings to the outside (doors and windows), and firefighters working in a house are usually not too far away from one of these openings. This is why the current practice of firefighters working until their low-air bell sounds has been perpetuated in the fire service.

The problem of exiting the building safely arises when you move from the simple house fire to a large commercial structure or a large apartment house, particularly those with extremely long hallways or with unusual layouts and floor plans. In these types of fires, firefighters who are met with severe fire and smoke conditions on the inside cannot assume that they can work or search until their bell begins ringing on their SCBA. And this is where the concept of air management comes into play.

It is our contention that firefighters need to begin managing their air like scuba divers do. Scuba divers are constantly aware of their air consumption and the amount of air they have left in their tanks. In fact, recreational divers are expected by the dive master to have 500 psi left in their tank when they return to the dive boat. In Seattle, members of the fire department dive team are trained to begin their ascent when they have 1,000 psi left in their tanks, and their dive master expects them to return to the boat with a minimum of 500 psi left in reserve. (Note: they also carry a “pony tank” with them for emergencies).

We believe that firefighters need to adopt a scuba diver’s mentality when it comes to air consumption and managing their air supply. It should no longer be acceptable for a firefighter to work in hazardous atmospheres right up to the time when their SCBA low-air warning bells begin to ring. We would argue that all firefighters need to exit the fire building or hazardous atmosphere before their low-air warning bell begins ringing. This gives them ample reserve air should something go wrong.

The rule of air management is a simple one: Know how much air you have used, and manage the amount air you have left in your bottle so that you leave the hazardous environment before your SCBA’s low-air warning bell begins to ring.

This rule holds true for any fire building or any hazardous atmosphere. It should be followed at all times: at the bread-and-butter room fire in a single-family dwelling, at the large apartment house fire, at the large commercial fire, at the high-rise fire, at the confined-space rescue, or at any incident where firefighters will be using SCBA.

We believe that many firefighters’ lives will be saved if fire departments understand and adhere to the rule of air management.

How Air Management Works

How should firefighters keep track of their air? Each firefighter must continually check his or her regulator and let partners/team members know how much air is left. This allows the officer or team leader to make the decision when to leave the hazard area (fire building, confined space, etc.).

The officer or firefighter in charge of a team or group of other firefighters must take the lead in the rule of air management. Besides keeping an eye on the progress of the fire attack, the rescue operation, smoke conditions and other hazards, the officer or team leader now needs to direct firefighters to stop and check SCBA regulators at certain intervals. They then need to keep the incident commander (IC) informed of the team’s air situation.

However, all firefighters also need to be responsible for themselves. Firefighters must always be aware of their air consumption and the amount of air they have left in their bottle. They should constantly be asking themselves, “Do I have enough air to get out the same way I came in before my low-air alarm starts ringing?”

The amount of time the team/group of firefighters can remain in the fire building or hazardous atmosphere will be dictated by the member who has used the most air. If a firefighter is sucking down a bottle in 10 minutes, then that affects how much work the team can get done.

The effectiveness of the team will be directly related to the aerobic fitness of the members of that team. This has always been the case. However, now that the team of firefighters is working under the new rule of air management and must leave the hazardous atmosphere before their low-air warning bells begin ringing, aerobic fitness becomes even more of an issue.

The incident commander must now put the air management of the crews who are operating inside the fire building or hazardous atmosphere near the top of the priority list. Air management is a safety issue that cannot be ignored any longer in the fire service. The IC needs to get updated air management reports from the officers or team leaders inside the hazard area. The IC can either prompt the teams inside the building for this information or have the officers report their air status at certain intervals.

A New Beginning

The rule of air management is a true paradigm shift for the fire service. It is going to take time for firefighters to understand its importance, to train on it and to become comfortable with it.

Steve Bernocco is a 12-year veteran of the Seattle, WA, Fire Department, where he is a lieutenant of Ladder 10. He also has served as a training officer. Casey Phillips is a 16-year veteran of the fire service, the last 13 years serving with the Seattle Fire Department. He currently is the captain of Engine 40. Phil Jose is a 15-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department, where he is the captain of Ladder 5. He also has served as a training officer. All three authors are members of the Seattle Fire Department Operational Readiness Development Training Team.

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