The Importance of Having an Air-Management Plan

I often ask my kids, “What’s the plan, Stan?” It’s just a little play on words that we’ve been saying for many years, but they get the message: It pays to have a plan.

Firefighters are renowned for their ability to multitask in incredibly dynamic environments and make critical, life-altering decisions within fractions of seconds. And we know the secret to this seemingly innate ability: We have a freakish notion that we can simply “outperform” our enemy. But this theory has holes that, in many cases, we choose to ignore. We rationalize the risk/benefit ratio and conclude that we usually win; after all, “everyone goes home”–usually. But occasionally, and more than we want to acknowledge (damn The Secret List), we don’t win and firefighters die. Why? Because someone didn’t create a plan.

The Air-Management Plan
As I’ve traveled across this great country of ours, speaking with hundreds of firefighters representing dozens of departments, I’ve found that there’s a recurring theme: Many organizations lack a solid plan for many of the basic components of our profession.

Air management is one area in which the American fire service is woefully behind the eight ball. I’ve asked many firefighters, “How many of you conduct consumption-rate testing for your firefighters every year?” Very few do, and many haven’t even heard of it until I bring it up! It’s a simple concept: Measure how long it takes for each member of your crew to go through one SCBA cylinder while under physically demanding conditions.

This consumption-rate tool also lets you calculate approximately how much time you have left when the low-air alarm goes off. You know, the low-air alarm–the universal signal for “I’ve got 5 minutes left!”? Whenever I ask, “How much time did ‘they’ tell you that you had left in the cylinder once the low-air alarm goes off?” every firefighter from every corner of this nation has the same answer: 5 minutes. It’s a lie! This answer has been handed down from generation to generation, like a national secret, and we believe it. So we keep perpetuating the lie. Do you want to risk your life on a lie?

All of our lives, we’ve been inculcated with the idea that air is free and abundant. Then, suddenly, we’re thrust into the fire service where that “truth” is tragically debunked. We learn, often in exceedingly dangerous situations, that in our reality, air is finite. Although we logically know this to be true, we continue to operate under many flawed assumptions, telling ourselves things like, “There are plenty of extra air cylinders available on scene” or “The neighboring community has an air-supply unit on the way”–assumptions that simply reinforce the fatal idea that we can operate indefinitely.

Is this really your plan? Unfortunately, that’s as far as it goes for many of us. A solid plan must extend beyond the premise of availability; it must take into account the finite supply of air in an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment. Further, the plan must account for all the “what ifs”: What if I get separated from my crew, my lifeline? What if I get caught or trapped above the fire? What if I get entangled in a loop of wires? What if my facepiece gets damaged or broken? What if my SCBA low-air alarm goes off and I’m too far in? What if I can’t find my exit?

The Problem Is Real
Our profession is slowly awakening to its own mortality. Years ago, a British colleague wrote a letter to the editor of a trade publication about air management and our tragedy in Worcester, Mass. He wrote, “Why don’t you Americans ‘get it’?” I immediately channeled the anger of my ancestors who fought to free themselves from the tyranny of King George some 325 years ago. I immediately looked into flights to the United Kingdom, eager to begin a “seek-and-destroy” mission aimed at the supercilious limey bastard who penned those words. But it turns out that he was right! Operating without an air-management plan is not only foolhardy, it borders on negligence.

Trade journals like FireRescue magazine, as well as fire service authors and lecturers, are embracing the “radical fanaticism” of organizational and personal responsibility. It’s a system, not a benefit. It’s an entitlement, but it requires that all parties work as if their lives depend on it, because they do. Your organization has the responsibility to provide you with more-than-adequate personal protective gear and equipment, training and operational procedures, personnel resources and supervision. We need not settle for “minimum standards.” But we all must do our part to help create and support the culture of personal and organizational responsibility, in this case with the implementation of and compliance with a comprehensive air-management policy.

Get Started
Your department need not reinvent the wheel. You can acquire (read: steal) an air-management policy from a group or department that’s already done the research and beta-testing for you. We don’t care whose idea it was originally; if it works, we share it! Take it, tweak it to your organizational needs, and put your logo on the letterhead when you issue the standard operating procedure. As long as it works, and we can save firefighters from dying because of a lack of knowledge, then it’s all good.

Brothers like the Seattle guys–Lt. Steve Bernocco, Capt. Phil Jose, Capt. Casey Phillips and Capt. Mike Gagliano–have been leading the charge in the revolutionary call for comprehensive air management. Contact them ( or start from scratch in your own department. Either way, ask yourself the question, “What’s your plan, Stan?”

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