News: Breathe easy: Firefighters train on SCBA to ensure own, others lives kept safe
Story by Karen Abeyasekere
RAF MILDENHALL, England -- When rescuing people from a fire, trying to save a house or other structure, or even performing live-fire training, firefighter safety is paramount. If their own safety is put in jeopardy, that could lead to risking the lives of others.
Personal protective equipment, specifically a self-contained breathing apparatus which holds their compressed air, plays a big part in keeping them safe.
But this air supply isn't endless. One tank lasts approximately 30 minutes, though this can vary from person to person depending on their level of activity.
To determine the rate of air consumption, in turn figuring out how long an air tank will last them, firefighters perform annual respiratory protection training in accordance with the National Fire Protection Association Standard 1404, which states each member who could be exposed to respiratory hazards must have respiratory protection equipment.
"We provide the equipment and we also have to have written training policies for respiratory protection," said Master Sgt. Shanton Russell, 100th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department assistant fire chief of health and safety from Chicago. "One of those policies states that we have to have a determination for the air consumption rate for each firefighter.
"We send a firefighter in that has 4,500 pounds per square inch of air; on average that bottle should last them 30 minutes. If we send a firefighter into a structural or aircraft fire - any immediate danger to life and health area (IDLH) - we need to know how long that bottle is going to last that person," Russell said.
The assistant fire chief of health and safety explained that although the SCBA should last 30 minutes, the time can vary dramatically based on a person's size, physical capabilities or even how hot it is outside - many different factors can affect how firefighters breathe when they do the job.
"We set up this course and they have to wear all their gear, because if we want a really true assessment, we can't just put the mask on and let them go," he said. "It's not a firefighter challenge course, so it doesn't matter who does it the fastest or who is the strongest - if we had a winner, it would be the person who did all of the work and used the least amount of air."
Throughout April, the 100th CES firefighters have taken turns to complete the training course, working in pairs around six stations consisting of a dummy drag, litter carry, Kaiser sled, 50-pound hose hoist, ladder section and hose drag.
They work together in pairs because that's what would happen in a fire.
"Maybe one person is more fit than the other; the person who is least fit may realistically run out of air first, but when that (happens), his partner is going to exit the building with him, no matter how much longer he can go," Russell said. "He's not going to say, 'Okay, you get out and I'm going to continue to save the day.' When his partner's out of air, they've got to go together."
The warning sign to show when a firefighter is low on oxygen is an alarm, or buzzer, on their air monitor.
"We want them to recognize that once your buzzer goes off, you still have to get out of the building. When that buzzer goes off, you may have between five to seven minutes of air left, and now you've got to make it out of the facility," Russell said. "Depending on where you are, you've still got to maneuvre your way out of the IDLH so you can take your mask off, because you're possibly still going to be exposed to toxins or other hazards."
The course was set up in such a way so that if someone's buzzer went off in any area, the pair had to make their way back to the starting area before they could remove their masks.
"If they don't make it out in time, they're going to 'suck face' - they're going to run out of air, which is basically the point of no return and the point at which they may end up dead or severely injured," the Chicago native said.
Walking every step of the course with them, two other firefighters are on hand to check the air of the pair completing the course, noting the readings and ensuring they get into the habit of checking their breathing supply at every opportunity.
Getting into the habit of regularly checking their air and recognizing when they're getting low is vital to the first responders' safety. If they still have tasks to complete, but realize they might not have enough air to make it, they then know to get out and switch out their bottles.
Before beginning the tasks along the course, each firefighter has their pulse and blood pressure taken, along with how much air they have in their tanks, then the same is done once they finish. Using that information, together with the time it took to complete the course, Russell then works out their exact air consumption rate in PSI to ensure his firefighters fall well within the average 30 minutes that an air bottle should last.
"I've done a different version of this training before, but it was modified this year," said Senior Airman Jacob Urry, 100th CES Fire Department firefighter and driver operator from Kennewick, Wash. "Before, we would measure the air in our cylinder before and after the course; this time, air measurements were taken in between each event so we could get a more precise measurement and see what was the most strenuous."
Urry said he found the Kaiser sled to be the most physically demanding part of the course.
"I always find that I want to see how quickly I can get it back to the point it needs to be at," he said. "It's something to go full bore on, and it's the most fun part. It's definitely a personal challenge."
The senior airman said he's done a similar course before, but without the breathing apparatus, and donning the mask and air tank definitely made a difference.
"The weight definitely has an impact on cardiovascular effect, and having the mask on and being on air is more strenuous; your breathing speeds up," he said. "(The course) isn't timed, which really allows us to go at our own pace, but then we can see how much air we're using per minute."
The training also identifies any shortfalls should there be any.
"The purpose of this is to make sure they understand the abilities and limitations of their gear, so if someone is sucking down a 30-minute bottle in 10 minutes, we want them to know that's not good," Russell said. "They would end up being a liability on the fire ground."
He added that the previous fire chief, Chief Master Sgt. Scott Knupp from Scott City, Mo., always made his firefighters do 30-minute runs every week during physical training.
"He doesn't care how fast or slow you run, but the bottom line was he wanted us working for 30 minutes - at the end of the day we're expected to make a bottle last 30 minutes in a fire. You could be in a fire ground, but you don't know what you're going to be doing - you could be taking tools and equipment up to a ladder so somebody else can hoist them up; you could be doing salvage and overhaul, going in just poking holes through the walls to make sure the fire didn't extend.
"Then when you're done doing that, you go back and ask what other tasks there are, then go and do something else. That's what this training involved - you finish one task, then move onto the next," Russell said.
Urry said this training allowed him and the other firefighters to concentrate on properly using the SCBA.
"This really gives you an opportunity to become familiar with the equipment and make sure you're not uncomfortable in it," he said.
The 100th CES Fire Department constantly trains its firefighters in all aspects of their job, ensuring they are always prepared for any emergency they may have to deal with.
"Doing this right means we do things that are realistic on the fire ground, putting them in situations they're going to face, in gear they're going to wear - while breathing air from a tank - to find out how they did at the end of the day," Russell said.