The Fire Scene: Assisting Your Own Rescue

Chief John Salka presents some new twists on old tactics that may save your life.

John J. Salka Jr., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired FDNY battalion chief who was 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 “First In, Last Out – Leadership Lessons From the New York Fire Department.” He also operates Fire Command Training, a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.
John J. Salka Jr., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired FDNY battalion chief who was 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 “First In, Last Out – Leadership Lessons From the New York Fire Department.” He also operates Fire Command Training, a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.

As I travel across the country, I am amazed by the lessons I learn and the new tactics that I see being developed and modified by firefighters and officers everywhere. Several of those lessons are included in this article about how we can assist with our own rescue.

There is no shortage of written material about firefighter survival, saving our own and rapid intervention team (RIT) operations. Much of it, and many of the tactics, are solid, longstanding and widely accepted. Many of these tactics and programs are aimed at how firefighters can rescue or save the lives of fellow firefighters. There are, however, some actions that firefighters can take to assist in their own survival, even if they have already called for help or transmitted a mayday.

SCBA harness

After years of teaching and demonstrating RIT tactics and skills, I was introduced to a unique variation of a well-known tactic. We are all familiar with the RIT activity involving a downed firefighter’s SCBA waist strap. After locating an unconscious firefighter, the rescuers assure a positive air supply and then do what? Find the member’s SCBA waist strap, disconnect it, take care not to drop or let either end loose, and reconnect the belt between the firefighters legs transforming the SCBA harness to a rescue harness that can be used to pull and even lift the firefighter out of the building.

While presenting a class about this tactic, a firefighter in the audience suggested that a firefighter who is able to do so, after transmitting a mayday or otherwise calling for help, should reach down and complete that waist strap conversion themselves. This simple idea, to complete a maneuver that your rescuers would otherwise have had to take the time to perform was simple, but at the same time amazing. I had been teaching that skill for years and it never occurred to me that the involved firefighter might be able to get that done themselves! It is quite simple and easily completed in a matter of seconds and relieves the RIT of having to perform the much more difficult and time-consuming version of the task.

Keep your facepiece on

Another firefighter survival issue is the importance of never removing the SCBA facepiece, regardless of conditions or events. Keeping the SCBA facepiece on will have a dramatic effect on the survivability of a firefighter in an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) situation. Regardless of the events that led up to the decision, firefighters should make every effort to keep the facepiece on. Even after running low and then even running out of air, the temptation to pull the facepiece off must be resisted. The immediate negative result of doing so includes the helmet being removed along with the protection of the earflaps, exposing the firefighter’s head, neck, face and ears to fire, heat, toxic gases and superheated water. Additionally, the firefighter will now be inhaling those same gases, heat and water vapors causing immediate injury and physical damage.

Another enormous benefit of keeping your SCBA facepiece on during a life-threatening situation is that it will greatly reduce the time that it will take for the RIT or other rescuers to get you back on a positive air supply after they locate you. Imagine a RIT locates a firefighter who was lost and running low on air and transmitted a mayday. The firefighter did in fact run out of air, but as a result of effective survival training, they did not remove their facepiece. The RIT locates them, quickly determines the facepiece is still in place, and just as quickly connects the regulator of the RIT pack to the facepiece to provide life-saving air to the downed firefighter. Now imagine the same firefighter has removed their SCBA facepiece after running out of air. Not only will they immediately be exposed to the toxic environment, but when the RIT arrives and discovers that the SCBA facepiece is off, they will need to open the RIT bag, locate a facepiece, remove it, properly position the facepiece onto the downed firefighter and start the air supply to the member. This can take five minutes or more and may be the difference between survival and death.

So, you see there are tactics and maneuvers that can help you help yourself. Keep reading, keep training and stay alive!

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