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Using SCBA Drills to Improve Your Air Management

Issue 12 and Volume 4.

How often do you conduct SCBA drills? Even if you went through an SCBA drill on your last shift or on your last drill night, it’s time to have another one. You just can’t emphasize enough how important this one piece of equipment is to the health and safety of every firefighter. Regardless of your level of experience or training, there’s just no way to master the SCBA without a continuous effort and a personal commitment to improvement.

There’s no shortage of SCBA drills you can organize and present to your crewmembers. Don’t get in the same old rut by just blacking out the facepiece and crawling around the apparatus bay. A good starting point is to review past firefighter fatalities or near misses that involve SCBAs or air management. These incidents will provide great information that may help you prevent the same mistakes from happening in your own department. Look at Web sites such as FirefighterCloseCalls.com, NIOSH and the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System for current information.

And get out of the classroom, too. Although sound classroom training is just as important with the SCBA as it is with all fire service subjects, the hands-on approach is a must for SCBA training. In this article, I’ll focus mainly on consumption drills. But first, let’s review a few basics.

SCBA Checks
We talk a lot about our operational readiness. If there’s one piece of equipment that has a direct impact on our personal safety, it’s our SCBA. Most career departments have their personnel check their SCBA at the start of each shift. This is not a task that should be delegated to the apparatus operator or another member of the company. Your life depends on how well that unit functions, so it should be your job to check it and maintain it.

Volunteer companies should have a similar system that provides for routine checks and procedures for getting the units back in service after use.

Teaching point: We sometimes take for granted the very simplest things, like our daily or weekly SCBA checks. The little things like a full bottle of air and the supply hose connected to the bottle ensure we get off on the right foot. Train each crewmember to perform the check the same way, and if possible, use a standardized check sheet.

Consumption Drills
One of the most misunderstood concepts about SCBA use concerns the different bottle sizes and the amount of air that each size will provide. All firefighters must understand the amount of working time they’ll get off each size bottle. The most common sizes are routinely called 30-minute, 45-minute, and 1-hour bottles. This can be very misleading when determining actual working times.

There are a lot of factors that determine working times and members must be aware of them before being introduced into a hostile environment. Consumption drills are the best way to determine how long a specific bottle will last for you.

When planning your consumption drill, try to replicate conditions that you’d find on the fireground by having members wear full PPE and SCBA. The drill should involve some method of increasing members’ heart rate and exertion level as if they were involved in a real fire.

Consumption drills don’t have to be tedious, either. Keep it fun. I’ve seen departments play basketball and broom ball while wearing SCBAs as a way of increasing cardio levels and tracking consumption rates.
A note on safety: Before starting, be sure to monitor each member’s pulse and blood pressure. Conduct a basic pre- and post-drill medical evaluation to obtain information on the fitness level of your crewmembers and identify any warning signs.

Here’s what a consumption drill might look like:

  1. Perform baseline medical evaluations of all members involved in the drill, including pulse and blood pressure.
  2. Instruct all participants to don full PPE and SCBA.
  3. Record the amount of air in the SCBA bottle of each participant and their starting times.
  4. Run each participant through a high-energy, cardio-intensive activity, such as a mask confidence course. Or, allow them to play a team sport such as basketball (still in PPE).
  5. When each member’s low-air alarm activates, have them stop the drill and record the time. Continue until all members’ low-air alarms have stopped or the member stops performing the required task (out of air or is no longer capable of continuing).
  6. Calculate the actual working times (how many minutes per bottle each member can expect to get) and provide them to each member.

Last-Breath Drills
Although there are many great SCBA drills that can be used to determine consumption rates and improve the user’s confidence with their SCBA, a drill that I think every SCBA user should perform when learning the basics (and then every year as a refresher) is to breathe a bottle all the way down to nothing. This drill is a firefighter survival skill that everyone should experience.

If you’ve worn an air pack, you’ve probably had your low-air alarm activate. But have you ever had to breathe that very last breath of air from the tank? If not, you need to. That last breath has a huge impact on your mental process, even during a training exercise in a non-hostile environment.

The breathing apparatus also has a very unique sound and feel to it when pulling down that last breath of air. Each brand of SCBA will have a different feel to it, so take the time to know your brand of SCBA.

Here’s what a last-breath drill might look like:

  1. You can start by using fresh bottles, but I recommend using the depleted bottles from the consumption drill.
  2. Let each member continue to breathe the bottle down until the member cannot get any more air. At this point, have them remove their masks to breathe normally.
  3. Demonstrate the emergency procedures for running out of air or experiencing a mask malfunction.
  4.   iscuss with each member how the SCBA feels and sounds when reaching that last breath of air.

A Final Word
Our lives depend on that air we carry on our backs and the skills we develop using this most important piece of equipment. You can’t train too much or be too good with your SCBA.