SCBA & Firefighter Packaging

Nov. 14, 2022
Timothy S. Cowan walks us through two methods for utilizing the straps of an SCBA to remove a downed firefighter from a fire building.

A mayday is one of the most stressful situations that any firefighter can encounter. It doesn’t matter whether you are the person who called the mayday or the incident commander; this will be one of those calls that you never will forget.

If you are assigned to the rapid intervention team (RIT), your skills will be tested.

Many skills should be learned and mastered if you are to operate as a RIT company. These skills include the ability to read smoke, firefighter drags and carries, and firefighter packaging, among others. They should be trained on until you can’t get them wrong.

One of the things I learned about mayday calls is that, although there can be commonalities, each mayday is unique.

Here, we will focus on a firefighter who is down and unable to move. Again, each situation is different, but many times, some sort of firefighter packaging must be done for removal. Firefighter packaging is a critical step that must be completed quickly and correctly to ensure a successful extrication from the building.

Undoubtedly, some of you are thinking, why not just grab the SCBA shoulder straps and start pulling? That might be the right call if you are going a very short distance to the exterior. However, I am referring to a firefighter who is trapped above or below grade or who has a great distance to travel to the outside. If firefighter packaging isn’t completed, there is a significant possibility that you will pull the SCBA right off of the individual. If that were to happen, precious time would be wasted trying to figure out what to do next: Not only would the downed firefighter’s facepiece be dislodged, which would make things much worse for the firefighter, but you also wouldn’t have anything to use to pull on.

Upon finding a downed firefighter, one of the first steps is to check the remaining air in that person’s cylinder. Provided that there is enough air left in the cylinder—or you convert that person’s air system to a RIT Pack—the next step would be to package the firefighter. This is by no means an easy task.

Converting to a harness

The first step of converting an SCBA into a usable harness for firefighter removal is to loosen both shoulder straps all the way out. Next, move to the waist strap and loosen both sides of the strap until they are entirely loosened.

Loosening the SCBA straps sounds easy, but it’s anything but that under zero visibility and high stress.

Next, unbuckle the waist strap and reconnect the strap through the legs. The easiest way to do this is to put one leg of the downed firefighter on your shoulder while connecting the waist strap around and through the leg.

The critical factor here is not letting go of the straps. Precious time will be lost if you let go of the straps and must find them in terrible conditions.

The reason to loosen all of the straps is because you might have to pull the SCBA down on the firefighter to buckle the waist strap through the legs.

Once all of this is done, retighten the waist strap and then retighten both shoulder straps (see opening image). With the conversion completed, you can pull on the shoulder straps without the fear of pulling off the SCBA.

All of this can be a very arduous and exhausting task.

Depending on the distance that must be traveled, whether you and the downed firefighter must go up or down stairs and whether you will face any obstacles, the straps might need to be retightened along the way.

This type of packaging is an essential RIT skill that should be practiced in all types of conditions. RIT crews eventually must be put under stress when practicing this SCBA conversion. It’s a different ballgame when your mask is blacked out, you are on air and someone is yelling at you to hurry up compared with perfect conditions when you can see and there is no stress.

Webbing/carabiner alternative

The SCBA harness conversion isn’t without limitations. Firefighters who are very tall or very large present a difficult conversion, because the waist strap won’t be long enough to connect through the legs. Also, there could be waist strap buckle failure, which would cause the waist strap to come unbuckled.

An alternative method uses a 20-foot piece of one-inch tubular webbing and two large carabiners. The webbing is tied together with a water knot, making a loop. The carabiners are used to attach the webbing to the firefighter.

The first step is to attach the carabiner to the webbing loop, then attach the carabiner to one of the shoulder straps above the shoulder (Photo 1). Next, take the webbing loop around and through one of the legs and attach the other carabiner to the webbing and the opposite shoulder strap above the shoulder.

At this point, the webbing is attached to one of the shoulder straps, runs through the legs and is attached to the other shoulder strap. Make sure to retighten all of the SCBA straps before you begin firefighter removal. Essentially, you took the SCBA out of the equation, except for using the shoulder straps as an anchor point.

Now, with the loops of webbing at the shoulder straps, the loops are used to pull on (Photo 2).

This packaging method is much quicker than the SCBA harness conversion, and there is a lot less moving of the firefighter back and forth to connect the waist strap.

One of the limitations to this method is that, again, depending on the size of the downed firefighter, your webbing might be too short, which would cause the webbing to attach too low on the shoulder straps. If this were to happen, you would be over the top of the firefighter when trying to pull, which isn’t a good position for pulling.

Alternatively, on the low-pressure-hose side, if the webbing is attached too low on the shoulder strap, it will interfere with the hose, which would cause the regulator or mask to become dislodged.

This method also must be practiced until the rescuer completes it perfectly in all conditions.

Drag rescue device

With all of this talk about harness conversions, someone must be thinking about the drag rescue device (DRD). Why not use that?

The DRD is a great thing, and if you can use it, then do so. However, there are some issues with this device.

The DRD is located right below the collar on the rear of the coat. I often have seen the SCBA covering this area, which makes it challenging to grab hold of the DRD.

Also, when you wash your gear, the DRD is supposed to be removed. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem. The problem arises when the DRD is reinstalled incorrectly or when you forget to put the inside liner through the DRD shoulder loops. When either of these things happen, if you grab the DRD as designed in a rescue situation, you will pull the webbing right through without ever catching the shoulders. It sucks when you are holding a webbing loop with no firefighter attached to the other end

Of course, many departments lack turnout gear that has these devices, reinforcing the need for SCBA packaging.

More firefighter packaging

Mayday situations are so unique that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and there are ways other than what’s noted above to package firefighters for removal. Remember to review your policies and procedures regarding mayday and RIT calls to apply the appropriate strategy and tactics to the situation.

About the Author

Timothy Cowan

Timothy S. Cowan is a deputy fire chief with the Dewitt Fire District in central New York and a 30-year veteran of fire and emergency services. He recently retired as a deputy fire chief/fire marshal with the City of Oneida, NY, Fire Department. Cowan also is a volunteer firefighter with the Canastota, NY, Fire Department. He is a deputy fire coordinator and fire instructor for Madison County, NY, Office of Emergency Management. Cowan is completing the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. He earned an associate degree in fire and emergency services and a bachelor’s degree in fire and emergency management, both from the SUNY Empire State College.

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