Learning your personal air consumption rate during routine fireground tasks is not difficult–but it can have an enormous impact on your safety and effectiveness in an environment that’s immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH). In fact, routine air-consumption drills may have the biggest “return on investment” of nearly all fireground training.
Over the years, the fire service has adopted several misleading terms with regard to SCBA use and air consumption. Example: referring to “30-minute bottles” or “45-minute bottles,” and referring to the end-of-service time indicator (EOSTI) as the “low-air alarm.” This confusion has created an air of mystery around SCBA and likely contributes to the overall miscalculation of air supply–which in turn can have drastic consequences when your life literally depends on it.
The bottom line: The way we define and think of air consumption must change if we want to endure the violent fire behavior conditions created by modern fuels, the constantly downsized staffing and the ever-increasing work demands placed on our people. And the best way we can do that is through regular, mandatory air-consumption drills.
Air-consumption drills should be a mandatory routine of every initial fire academy, recurrent training and whenever a firefighter has a significant body change, such as weight gain or loss, a medical illness or new medications that may impact performance. There are many psychological and physiological factors that can increase our air consumption while in an IDLH environment–and they are different for each of us. Air-consumption drills serve as a best practice for you to establish your own limitations through real experience, so you can better understand and control your air consumption during combat.
Due to the physical nature of air-consumption evolutions, all participants should have a baseline physical that is compliant with their agency’s policies or rules. In absence of an existing standard, you can refer to NFPA 1582: Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments. Additionally, participants with pre-existing medical problems potentially aggravated by this activity should not participate as it may increase the possibility for further injury or risk.
The overall purpose of an air-consumption drill is to identify the member’s individual limitations while breathing from their SCBA in a controlled and safe training environment during multiple evolutions. Conditions should, however, be as realistic as possible in order to develop the tactile memory and physiological realization of breathing effort while functioning in simulated events.
Air-Consumption Activities Overview
Once members are comfortable with their SCBA, have worn it in non-emergency conditions and have a complete understanding of the Rules of Air Management (ROAM), you can proceed to simple drills designed to replicate conditions found on every fireground.
The scenarios should be as realistic as possible and require members to use their accountability system and complete the drill wearing complete personal protective equipment (PPE) and, of course, SCBA. The purpose of the drill is not only to simulate air consumption necessary for the member during fireground activities, but, more importantly, is to build a number of near-simultaneous tasks that steadily increase the member’s exertion level and fatigue as if they were involved in a real incident. The overall outcome is to improve the SCBA wearer’s self-awareness of air consumption as well as improve overall endurance and effectiveness.
During any air-consumption drill, follow these guidelines for medical monitoring and rehab:
- Medical: Paramedics should provide medical surveillance before and after the drill, as well as being available for emergencies.
- Rehab: As with any training session, a rehab station should be in place prior to the starting the drill to provide adequate nutrition and hydration for the participants prior to and after the evolution.
The overall description of an air-consumption drill consists of six steps:
- Each member is provided one SCBA filled to capacity and should be in full PPE.
- Participants are medically screened prior to the evolution (including blood pressure, pulse, respirations), and vital signs pre/post SCBA are documented.
- Each participant is then instructed to begin the course at a comfortable pace–no running is permitted.
- Participants are instructed to complete as many tasks/stations as possible without â€¨stopping. Partially completed stations cannot be counted.
- Participants continue this process until their EOSTI activates, at which point the time is documented and evolution stops.
- Participants will continue through the course until they reach total exhaustion and/or the EOSTI activates–at which point their total operating time is documented.
The evolutions are designed in a series to simulate actual fireground tasks. At every station, other participants should be supporting and monitoring the activity and assisting wherever necessary. Due to the natural competitiveness of firefighters, the five events will likely become a race. In lieu of “racing” for time, encourage the participants to strive for the least amount of air consumed throughout the evolution. Additionally, do not allow participants to “work past their bell.” Allowing bad behavior during training will not only encourage it on the fireground, it will guarantee it.
Let’s take a look at the five stations. (Note: To download a diagram of the air management combat course, click here.)
Event 1: High-Rise Pack Carry
Firefighters should start at the bottom of stairs in a well-identified area with their hands on either side of a hose pack but not touching it. At the signal to begin the evolution, the participant picks up and shoulders one 5′ section of 2″ fire hose and carries it up to the fifth floor, where they drop the shoulder load on the landing in the designated area. Steps may be taken in multiples on the way up.
Event 2: Hose Hoist
From the fifth-floor balcony, standing in a designated area, the participant pulls a rope–in a hand-over-hand fashion–to hoist approximately 50 lbs. up and over the balcony railing and place it on the floor in the designated area. The participant then proceeds down the stairs to the first floor and advances to a force machine. Safety issue: Participants should not stand on any part of the railing.
Event 3: Force Entry
The participant straddles the beam and uses a sledgehammer to drive the beam backward five feet. Pushing, raking or dragging the beam is not allowed and will result in disqualification. Only the face of the head of the hammer is allowed to strike the beam. After driving the beam approximately five feet, the participant places the head of the sledgehammer at the designated area next to the force machine before moving on to the next evolution.
Event 4: Hose Advance
The participant moves to a charged section of 1″ fire hose, picks up the nozzle and places it over their shoulder, then drags the hose approximately 100 feet until the nozzle passes a line marked by traffic cones. Once the nozzle passes the line, the firefighter opens the nozzle to show water, turns off the nozzle and places the hose and nozzle on the ground. If the nozzle is not shut before it touches the ground, the participant must go back and turn off the nozzle.
Event 5: Victim Rescue
Once at the victim drag evolution, the participant stands at the manikin’s head, places it in a seated position, places their arms underneath the manikin’s arms and lifts the manikin until the participant is in a standing position. The participant then walks backward, moving the manikin (approximately 185 lbs.) approximately 100 feet until they cross the finish line. The manikin should be dressed in firefighting boots, bunker pants and bunker coat. Note: The manikin should be moved in the method described above; moving the manikin any other way, including dragging by any appendage, clothing or head, is not allowed. If the participant loses their grip and the manikin falls to the floor or the participant falls backward with the manikin, they are to reset, pick up the manikin and continue.
Performing this drill will give participants two valuable numbers to keep in mind:
- Their individual, estimated SCBA operating time: This is equivalent to the total time the participant is able to perform the course tasks in an acceptably safe and coordinated manner (put simply, the total endurance drill time). Example: A participant’s EOSTI may sound after 14 minutes on the course, at which point the drill ends for that participant and the time is recorded. The participant now knows approximately how long an SCBA bottle will last them during high-impact fireground operations–assuming no changes in the SCBA bottle size or in the participant’s physical condition.
- Their estimated air consumption rate: This is the rate at which the participant consumes the supplied air throughout the operation, and presumably will do so on the fireground. To calculate this, take the starting pressure and divide it by the SCBA operating time. Example: Starting pressure 4,500psi/SCBA operating time of 14:00 = air consumption rate of 321 psi/minute. This figure can then be used to estimate safe operating times for certain on-air tasks (e.g., interior attack) on the fireground.
This course, designed to replicate fireground tasks, is completely modifiable and up to the jurisdiction. Many agencies use the candidate physical ability test (CPAT), some select a less or more strenuous course, and some simply change the drills every time. Regardless of the course, the stations and even the skills, the goal is to build knowledge of personal air consumption and encourage endurance.
Firefighting is an endurance sport, and like a professional athlete, you need to train. The amount of physical and mental training you put forth with SCBA endurance drills will most assuredly be awarded with increased working capacity while on air, a safer reserve when a nightmare scenario (mayday) occurs and a healthier life when not wearing your SCBA.
The fundamentals of air management should be in the forefront of every firefighter’s mind when they don an SCBA, whether in training or on the fireground. Collective operational readiness doesn’t mean just checking to make sure your SCBA is in the compartment, or the mask is attached or that it’s secured to your seat. Readiness includes preparing yourself physically and psychologically for combat. Working smarter and more efficiently–and knowing how your body and mind will react when you are physically exhausted and low on air–may be your only chance for survival in extreme cases.
When the bell hits, the “extreme case” begins. Will you be ready?
- Gagliano M, Phillips C, Jose P, et al. Air Management in the Fire Service (1st ed.). PennWell: Tulsa, Okla., 2008.
- National Fire Protection Association. Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments (NFPA 1582). NFPA: Quincy, Mass., 2013.
- Schaeffer, B. Know the rules. FireRescue. 2010;(28)8:80—83.
- Sendelbach, T. SCBA endurance for fireground survival. In www.TES2training.com. Accessed Feb. 17, 2013 from www.tes2training.com/handouts/SCBA_Endurance.pdf.