10 Mistakes SCBA Training Programs Make and How to Fix Them

Issue 5 and Volume 15.

10 Mistakes SCBA Training Programs Make and How to Fix Them
A comprehensive SCBA program must address and encourage mastery of the tasks we perform regularly on the fireground, not just random drills to get the SCBA on our backs. (Mark Brady, PIO, Prince George's County Fire and EMS Department photo)

You have responded as an engine captain to a basement fire with your company. As you arrive, your 360-degree size-up of the structure reveals a small one-story, single-family residential occupancy with heavy, laminar smoke showing from the first floor and more turbulent heavy smoke from the basement windows. As the initial attack crew, you enter the structure according to your best assessed tactical advantage and search for the basement stairs. As you reach the bottom of the stairs, the ceiling suddenly collapses, breaking up your crew. You are all separated, lost, disoriented, and possibly injured and no one is in contact with a hoseline. Do you know what to do? Does your crew? How confident are you with your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) skills and your ability to handle stress? Has your SCBA training program prepared you for this event?In the modern fire service, there are arguably two pieces of equipment whose proper use are critical to safety and survival on the fireground. These include the portable radio and the SCBA.

Over the past 20 years, I have noted a marked reduction in the proficiency of both, with a significant reduction in SCBA capability. The technology seems to improve, while practical skills seem to diminish. With the reduction of the incidence of fires, the incorporation of emergency medical services (EMS) and other responsibilities reducing training time, and ever-present competition for training funds, the reduction in expertise regarding the use of the SCBA has become frighteningly apparent. Fewer and fewer active firefighters are experts in the operation of their SCBA, and we need to be.

Despite the old sayings, it is not better to be lucky than good. One day luck always runs out. Will you and your crew survive when it does? One of the first skills any firefighter learns during the training academy is the proper use of the SCBA at a basic level. We are told how valuable proper use of this piece of equipment is and, as a result, work with it almost daily to attain that basic level of proficiency. When the training academy is over, however, these skills begin to deteriorate almost immediately if not practiced regularly. Additionally, because of the variety of job functions that require our attention, our SCBA skills rarely progress past the basic proficiency level.

Throughout the years, I have found many SCBA training programs do two things very well: They limit the firefighter’s thought process and they train them to fail in case of a catastrophic event.

Listed below are what I find to be the most serious SCBA training mistakes that have been reinforced time and time again. Unfortunately, these mistakes are transferred to and repeated in the real world, sometimes with deadly results.

10 Most Serious SCBA Training Program Mistakes

1. There may not be a dedicated SCBA training program at all, let alone a graduated, written, and enforced one.
“We don’t need a dedicated, formal SCBA training program. We complete quarterly training on SCBA as required. We know it’s the same every quarter, but this is all we need. I’m sure you will be fine.”

One of the most obvious causes of the deterioration of SCBA skills is the apparent lack of focused and dedicated SCBA fire department training programs in place. When our initial academy-level basic SCBA training is complete, firefighters return to their departments and often do not have a departmental program to maintain and further develop their skills. Sometimes the firefighters are left to determine on their own if they need to improve their SCBA skills and to train themselves to improve. This must change. A program that is structured and graduated in intensity with clear goals and objectives must be developed and administered from the highest levels. This can be time consuming, but it is necessary for both firefighter and public safety.

2. It may wrongly assume a certain level of comfort and proficiency with the SCBA itself.
“You all learned how to use the SCBA in the academy. That was all you need. I’m sure you will be fine.”

It is true that firefighters should have a high level of comfort and proficiency with SCBA. The mistake occurs when we assume that they do. Today, firefighters can go for weeks or months without using SCBA in an emergency. Further, these same firefighters can go for long periods of time where they do not put SCBA on at all. For this reason, there is a great variety of possible proficiency levels that may exist, even within a fire department that has more frequent structure fires. This varying level can cause serious issues, especially in cases of SCBA failure and rapid intervention scenarios. Quarterly training is not enough to provide proficiency to the required level.

An effective solution to this problem begins by using the above-mentioned training program to address the basic skills of using the SCBA as relates to comfort, balance, and dexterity. It also focuses on proficiency in full protective gear, including gloves. As skills progress, intermediate and advanced practice under increasingly stressful conditions is required. Mastery, not mere competence of each level, is key to success.

3. It may fail to incorporate Mayday procedures in training.
“It will never happen here. I’m sure you will be fine.”

Many SCBA training programs eliminate one of the most important aspects of training, the Mayday. I have been through countless SCBA confidence courses and have never even had the thought to call a Mayday, let alone have one required of me. This training must be practiced much more than it is. Some firefighters do not know the simple mnemonic devices for a Mayday situation or even when to call a Mayday. This must change. Our firefighters must master the reasons for calling a Mayday as well as the actions to take after a Mayday is called. Training is key.

4. It may instruct the firefighter exclusively in a “move forward at all costs” manner.
“Just move straight ahead. Let’s get this training done. We need to get back in time to get the pork roast out of the oven. If there is an issue in the real world, I’m sure you will be fine.”

We have all gone through the training, whether it is SBCA confidence courses, trailers, acquired structures, or other venues: “Go forward in a straight line and follow one obstacle to the next. When you have completed the course, you have completed training; great job.”

While expedient and convenient for the trainer, this technique may result in catastrophic consequences in a real-world situation. Sometimes the right answer is to go back, over, or around, not simply forward. Critical thinking in these situations must be part of the training protocol. When we don’t teach critical thinking during training and don’t give the freedom to improvise to the firefighter, it will cause problems later.

If we are trained to trudge forward all the time, we will do it when we are under stress. The SCBA training program must, after mastery of the basics, focus on critical thinking and improvisation related to SCBA use.

5. It may exclusively instruct the firefighter in a “follow the hoseline at all costs” mentality (our inner lemming).
“Everyone follow the hoseline through all manner of ridiculous and dangerous obstacles to finish the training evolution. If you are forced to critically think in the real world, I’m sure you will be fine.”

A hoseline is wonderful for finding the way out of a limited visibility environment, especially when you are disoriented, but we need to learn when to let it go. In the real world, if a hoseline is running into a tunnel of collapsed material or other similar less-safe area, it would be unwise to go through it blindly. Yet, this is exactly what we teach and exactly how we train. We follow the hoseline through all manner of obstacles, without critical thought, to find the end of the course. I believe this training is counterproductive and dangerous. Again, we must encourage situational awareness and critical thinking skills. We cannot be afraid to find another way out if the hoseline is not the best answer. This skill takes much focused training to gain proficiency, but it is worth it.

6. It may not allow for use of firefighter resources.
“You can’t use your hand light, wire cutters, or (fill in the blank). When the time comes when you need them in the real would, I’m sure you will be fine.”

This is one of the most glaring failures of today’s training mentality. We must be able to use our tools during training–all of them. This includes everything from thermal imaging cameras to flashlights, from wire cutters to webbing. If we aren’t allowed to use them during training, we won’t use them in the real world. We have all sorts of tools to work with to make us more effective and safer. If we are not allowed to train with them, we will not use them when they are needed.

This is not to say that we should not train for equipment failure. We can and should train for failure of our tools in an emergency and how to manage without them if necessary. This can be done in a more effective, structured manner, however.

7. It may not allow for use of firefighter senses, specifically the use of visual cues and depth perception.
“Put this bag over you head. Now it’s dark, just like the real world. In a real structure fire, I’m sure you will be fine.”

We are often not allowed to use our senses during training–more specifically, use of visual cues and depth perception. These visual skills are critical on the fireground and are all but ignored in training scenarios. How smoke responds to a door opening and how it appears in relation to us within a burning structure, even in zero visibility, provides information that can be used to enhance survivability.

Even today, the blacked-out mask is still used in SCBA training. Its use causes unintended bad habits to develop. To reduce visibility easily, we have removed the possibility of sight altogether. Skills including thermal imaging camera use, air management, accountability and crew continuity, and teaching firefighters to use what little vision they have are lost. This takes valuable practice at gathering information rapidly away from the firefighter and impairs their safety in the real world. We must train how we will respond.

One of the reasons I authored an SCBA training guide was that I noticed how infrequently I checked my air supply while fighting structure fires. I began to realize that I developed this bad habit during blacked-out training evolutions. This habit significantly reduced my safety in the real world and required many hours of self-training to correct.

Obscured vision is vital to proper SCBA training, and there are more effective and realistic ways to do it (live burns, training smoke, opaque mask covers, and darkness).

8. It may not address the management of panic or breathing control.
“When it all goes to hell, just relax. I’m sure you will be fine.”

As firefighters and EMS practitioners, we understand that the panic response refers to the mental and physiological processes that occur within the body when it is under stress. During these processes, there is an increased adrenaline release that occurs. This causes heat rate and breathing to increase, fine motor control to be lost, vision to be altered, and auditory exclusion to take place. In addition to this, the freeze response may reduce our ability to move in an effective manner [1].

These responses must be trained for in the most realistic and safe manner possible to enable the firefighter to manage the stress when faced with it in the real world. Breathing control and freeze reduction can be taught with realistic training.

9. It may not reinforce skills we use often on the fireground.
“I know we are not performing any job-related skills during this training evolution. Real fires, after all, happen in a vacuum, without complex, challenging obstacles to overcome. On the big day, I’m sure you will be fine.”

A comprehensive SCBA program must address and encourage mastery of the tasks we perform regularly on the fireground, not just random drills to get the SCBA on our backs. We must get the most bang for our training buck. This will help achieve confidence and balance and will improve general performance. The tasks of search, hoseline deployment, rapid intervention, and ventilation should all be added in with SCBA training. These are often neglected in traditional SCBA training in favor of easier drills.

10. It may not emphasize a “cheat to save, cheat to survive” philosophy.
“When push come to shove, just remember what you learned in training and I’m sure you will be fine.”

Firefighters must understand that when their life or someone else’s is on the line, there are no rules. We must win the fight at all costs. We must protect the public and go home to our families. We must be able to think clearly and critically, manage stress, and have the freedom to improvise to succeed. Obviously, this is not a comment on breaking standard operating procedures or cheating on promotional exams or EMS licensure tests. We must follow the rules and act in a manner that exemplifies integrity in those instances. In a life-threatening situation, however, it is permissible to do whatever is necessary to survive. This attitude must be ingrained during SCBA training.

Next Steps

It is common knowledge that in a stressful situation, we will go back to our training, right or wrong. If we are trained in a haphazard or improper manner, we may not “be fine.”

1. Rory Miller, Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected, Wolfeboro Publication Center, YMAA Publication Center, 2011. 118-134; 142-143.


John Lukancic is a 22-year veteran of the fire service and a captain in the Joliet (IL) Fire Department. He has a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Waldorf University and a bachelor’s degree in fire science management from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He is a certified State of Illinois fire service instructor and an Illinois licensed EMS lead instructor and has implemented his SCBA training program at the company level with positive results.