Simulated ceiling pull: Notice the instructor keeping track of air quantity and time. (Photos by Jeremy Keith.)
Change in the fire service is sometimes for the better-sometimes not. Whether you view a particular “adjustment” as positive or negative, the fire service as a whole tends to approach change with trepidation. This tendency is healthy and natural. We are a prideful group, steeped in tradition; these traditions help us continue the legacy created by our forebearers and keep us safe and happy at work.
We build our incident actions and tactics using training, experience, and instinct. Consciously and subconsciously, we draw from each of these pieces to create safe and efficient approaches to mitigating the incidents that we respond to. Often when we are asked to use a new method, technique, or approach, the mental pathways that we have created require adjustment. Sometimes this adjustment is negligible and easy to implement, and other times it is quite the opposite.
If you have been in the fire service long enough, you have probably had the “Why are we doing this?” moment once or twice. This could pertain to station life, incident management, or training. Many of us have even brought this question up to our superiors. Often the question is answered with valid and tried reasons. We internalize this reasoning and move on with a better understanding of the situation. Other times, however, the reply to the question is, “I’m not sure; it’s just the way we’ve always done it.” This answer sometimes provides a fork in the road, with one path following the status quo and the other forging a new road.
The Need for Change
I believe that air management is one of these situations. We have been taught and trained a certain way when it comes to how we treat the air on our backs. Many of these lessons are in our best interest, but some, however, may not be. In the department that I work for, air management meant getting out of the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment after a minute or two into your low-air-alarm activation. Our standards on wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on nuisance fires, car fires, and dumpster fires were not clearly defined and were left up to the company officer’s judgment. We didn’t incorporate air checks into drills or on incidents. False SCBA alert alarms were common, and we had become desensitized to the sound.
None of this was because of negligence or lack of understanding. I would put the staff I work with up with the greatest firefighters in our country; they are a well-trained, well-disciplined group of hard working and proud firefighters. The reason for some of our issues was simple: As an organization, we hadn’t put the emphasis on air management the way we should have. After learning more about the philosophy and reasons behind air management from the “Seattle Guys,” I felt obligated to push for change in my agency.
We started the change process by assembling a group of respected firefighters from our agency and spreading the message on the importance of air management. This group of “change agents” then collaborated on the creation of an air management policy that spelled out the expectations of the department. This gave us something to fall back on for the more “hard headed” of the group and took away the vagueness of how we were expected to treat our air. The next step was departmentwide classroom and manipulative training followed by the release of the policy.
Our training centered more on the importance of why we needed to change than what the change was. We wanted our firefighters to understand the importance of never, ever breathing smoke. We wanted to show that any of us could become a statistic. We wanted to show that air management was more than just getting out before your low-air-alarm activation-we wanted personnel to internalize the importance of why.
At the company officer level, integration of air management is an ongoing process. As previously mentioned, it really begins with buy-in and a comprehensive working understanding of the policy and expectations. The company officer must make it clear that he will not tolerate his firefighters dying of work-related cancer stemming from breathing in carcinogenic smoke. He must convey the importance of the reserve air supply. That reserve air supply is only there for your worst day. It belongs to your loved ones. Give the incident your working supply; the last quarter (soon to be third) is for us.
Another step to integrating the principles set forth in your policy is to continually train on them. Air management training should be a piece of every drill performed if there is an SCBA on your back. When performing vertical ventilation training, ask for air checks at corners or after completing cuts. Search training incorporating air management helps in “turn back time” decisions. Haz-mat training, live fire training, and even hose handling offer opportunities to use air management principles. Challenge crews to make timely decisions based on crossing the IDLH with the reserve air intact while still using their air to the fullest. Challenge the group to prevent any false SCBA alert activations caused by doffing the breathing apparatus and leaving it without turning it off. If there is a false activation, even in training, treat it as a real alarm to increase your attentiveness to the sound.
Practice What You Preach
The final and sometimes most difficult step to integrating an air management policy is to hold everyone to it. It is difficult for many of us to hold senior members accountable to some of these ideas. The “It’s just a trash fire, I don’t need a breather” mentality needs to stop. If you are on a roof ventilating without your mask on because you don’t expect smoke and heat to vent from the hole, why are you cutting the hole in the first place? As company officers, perhaps our most important mission is to keep our crews safe. Prove your commitment to them by not allowing them to breathe smoke. Hold everyone accountable, even during overhaul. We let our guards down because we are tired, because we are annoyed by the face piece, or because the incident is winding down, but the carcinogens and toxins are often still at extremely high levels. Be their boss and their friend and make them keep their breathers on; they will thank you for it in the long run and will hopefully pay it forward with the next generation.
With advances in technology, the increasing impact of social media and the Internet, and research being conducted on our tactics and strategies, more change is coming for us in the fire service. Many of these changes help us to provide a better service for the public we serve. We are all striving to save more lives.
Air management helps to accomplish these goals but, perhaps even more importantly, it helps save the lives of our own. We all know of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) that involve firefighters running out of air. We might not know any of these heroes personally, but we all know a firefighter who is battling or has passed on from job-related cancer. We owe it to those who have gone before us to try to prevent more LODDs in the future. The creation, implementation, and integration of an air management policy give us a way to do it.
Author’s note: This article is in memory of Firefighter Donovan Eckhardt, Renton (WA) Fire Department, 05/19/78-08/24/15.