September 2018 issue of “Firefighting” magazine came out with a fourth article in the sub-series that describe fireground survival topics. In two previous articles we were discussing PPE, which is our last line of defense against all the dangers that fire presents to us, this time we will cover firefighter’s most valuable resource – breathing air.
There is no secret that fire created IDLH atmosphere and this is exactly why we take our trusted weapon – SCBA – with us into every burning building. In September 2018 article I talk about all the tricks that allow you to make sure that you wouldn’t run out of air at the worst possible moment – that is before you exit IDLH atmosphere.
Since the article is published in Russian trade magazine, I will gladly translate its most important points, as I usually do.
- Modern fires are so toxic that you simply don’t have an option of either not using SCBA at all or depleting all air reserves while working inside and then making your way out of IDLH atmosphere. Simply put, nothing keeps you alive at the fire, nothing helps you survive more than your SCBA. Treat is well, it saves your life every time you “go to the job”.
- SCBA cylinder must be filled to its maximum capacity every time you enter IDLH atmosphere. Way too often we allow ourselves to re-enter IDLH conditions after we just got out of the building without changing a bottle, hoping that “half a tank” is good enough. Picture yourself disoriented in zero visibility, entangled or separated from your team with your low air alarm going off. If you could roll the clock 30 minutes back, would you rather enter the building with a full bottle or with half-empty? So my rule is simple: always change or refill the bottle, if you used it. There is only one exception allowed: we have a firefighter in distress or a confirmed civilian, either of these two are in immediate vicinity from the entry point, we know how to get to them and how to get them out – then we would use the bottles that we already have on us to quickly save a life. In all other cases… fire can wait.
- If your firehouse doesn’t have its own compressor, your leaders do not care enough about you and your safety. If your fire department does not bring ample supply of breathing air to the scene of fire (either in the form of a mobile compressor, cascade system or lots of filled spare cylinders), again, your leaders do not care enough about you and your safety. Until these things are in place in your department, you will be re-entering the burning buildings on half-spent bottles and you will be running your drills without using air, which is equally dangerous, because to survive, you need to train like you fight.
- Entering of a full bottle is not enough, though. You also need to save air as you work in SCBA during both normal and abnormal (emergency) operations. You save air NOT by putting your regulator on when the room is full of smoke – no, you need to go on air about 10 feet from the building, prior to entry. How you do save air during normal operations is by focusing on how you breathe when you are inside. All too often we just become too focused on the task and before you know it, you are breathing too fast without your body really needing so much air. When you work inside, move without spending more energy than you have to, do not break anything around you without real need and concentrate on counting your breaths, striving for longer inhalations and exhalations.
- If you end up in firefighter emergency with low air, if you know a way out, get out. If you don’t know the way out, the best thing you can do is to call Mayday right away, stop moving entirely, lie down on the floor, loosen SCBA straps (or even remove it from your back) and close your eyes. Stopping any movement reduces your air consumption between two to ten times depending on what you were doing before you stopped. Remember, two things increase air consumption: physical effort and brain activity (being worries, panicky or just processing visual information).
- Once you are not moving, start gradually slowing your breathing down. Do not force yourself. Inhale slowly until your lungs are full, hold your breath for as long as it is comfortable, then start to exhale slowly, then wait for as long as it is comfortable before taking the next slow breath. By doing so you are making your lungs extract more oxygen from the same air because the air sits in the lungs longer. By the way, if you practice this technique in safe training conditions (no IDLH atmosphere) with a pulse oxymeter on your finger, you will notice that your SpO2 does not drop below 95%, in other words your body does not become hypoxic, in yet other words this technique does not make you starve for oxygen. But the effect of this technique is tremendous – with practice, you will be able to gradually slow your breathing to 2-3 breaths per minute, and this way a cylinder on low air alarm can last you almost an hour and a full cylinder several hours instead of just typical 15-20 minutes like so called “30-minute” bottles do. The key is to slow your breathing down gradually – you can’t just switch from rapid breathing to a slow one in a snap. Give yourself several minutes. If you feel short on breath, do not force yourself, inhale fully right away and start again. You can’t reduce your air consumption if you are nervous or uncomfortable.
- You should practice this technique in safe training conditions regularly. Put on full PPE. Bleed the cylinder so that it is on the brink of triggering low air alarm. Put the regulator on. Start slowing your breathing down. See how long you can last. Do it regularly. I don’t recommend using a full cylinder because you will get bored. I nearly fell asleep after doing nothing for 2.5 hours and my “30-minute” cylinder wasn’t anywhere near being empty.
- Finally, you should never rely on these emergency procedures to go back home, instead you should never allow yourself to run out of air. Instead of waiting for the low air alarm to go off and then beginning to get out (let’s be honest, we all do that), you should use a rule of three thirds. First third of pressure in the tank is used to penetrate deeper into the building and do meaningful work, second third is used to exit IDLH conditions and the third one is reserved for any emergencies or unexpected delays during return.
If you understand Russian, you can either download and save a copy of the article in PDF format or you can view it right here on this page.