When a firefighter transmits a Mayday, the most important thing he needs is air. With the exception of flame impingement, the firefighter’s key to survival is having a sufficient air supply. Of all the tools a rapid intervention team (RIT) must bring to the rescue, the most important is a rescue air system. This system can be as simple as a spare self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) cylinder or an entire SCBA assembly for the trapped firefighter. Most SCBA units now have quick-connect rescue transfill hoses to “buddy breathe.” When two SCBA units are connected by a transfill air hose, the cylinders equalize in pressure—giving the distressed firefighter a limited fresh air supply but also cutting the rescuer’s air supply in half. This technique should only be used when both firefighters are mobile and the rescuer knows there is a short and clear path to safety outside of the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment. When the fire service embraced the RIT concept in the 1990s, it was immediately apparent that the rescue air supply had to be from a source independent of the rescuers. It wasn’t long before commercial units started appearing on the market.
Complete Assembly Example
One emergency air supply system is the RIT-PAK III, by Scott Safety. If you don’t think your input to product manufacturers makes a difference, think again. This unit was designed by firefighters and RIT instructors from across the country to specifically meet the challenges faced by previous RIT teams.
The carrying bag is made of high-visibility orange flame- and heat-resistant material. Reflective stripes improve visibility. There are easily identifiable “T” and “ball” handles that allow the rescuer to determine the low-pressure side from the high-pressure side of the bag. There are two easy-access storage pouches on the top of the bag to store hand tools and rope. An easy-to-remove, adjustable-length shoulder/drag strap allows the unit to be carried or dragged. The bag has a protective, heavy duty, plastic skid plate to reduce friction when the RIT-PAK III is dragged—and trust me, it will get dragged. It also makes it easier to identify the orientation of the bag in low-visibility and stressful environments. This isn’t the case with the current unit I have on Ladder 6. The bag has taken a beating from being dragged around and because the cover is soft, it is difficult to tell which way is up in limited visibility. Additionally, the RIT-PAK III has 10 “D” rings spaced out and attached to the edges of the skid plate to attach extra equipment.
The pneumatics include an external pressure gauge and indicator lights similar to those used in heads-up displays (HUDs) for SCBA face pieces. The rescuer can read the glow-in-the-dark dial or look at the indicator lights to determine how much air is in the cylinder. There is also an audible alarm bell that rings when the air capacity is down to 25 percent, just like regular SCBA units. A low-pressure manifold allows for a universal low-pressure hose with quick-connect fittings that work with other manufacturers’ SCBAs.
The face piece, a modified AV-3000 with SureSeal, has a simple, easy-to-use donning strap. There’s a large extended center tab that allows the rescuer to pull the netted head harness over the crown of the head. Two large rings allow the straps to be tightened for a tight seal around the face of the down firefighter. This face piece was designed so the rescuer could perform this evolution with firefighting gloves on.
Drill with Your System
No matter how many bells and whistles your emergency air supply system has, you need to drill on it. The critical evolution of the whole rescue air system (RAS) is the proper application of the face piece on a down firefighter. If you cannot perform this essential task quickly and successfully, you might as well have dragged in a boat anchor. I recently participated in a confined-space drill where my partner went down and lost his SCBA face piece. I had to use the RAS and apply a face piece to him. My performance was dismal. I was embarrassed with how clumsy I was and how long it took. I could not perform this task with my gloves on, and I fell on him twice when losing my balance in the tight, awkward space. In real life, he probably would have died from running out of air. Good thing we were friends, so I knew he would understand and forgive me. We joked about it after the drill. I told Brady, “Either I have to practice putting a face piece on you or you’re going to have to practice holding your breath!” But inside, I wasn’t joking. This was a skill set I knew I needed to practice and come up with a technique that would work for me.
There is no specific step-by-step technique, but there are a few training points that are worth reviewing with your crew. There are two basic scenarios: low-heat and high-heat applications.
In both applications, the first thing you should do is check the condition of the SCBA unit on the down firefighter. Check to see how much air is in the cylinder. If it’s empty, you immediately need to apply the RAS. If there is sufficient air remaining in the cylinder, you simply may need to refasten the existing face piece.
Listen to see if the firefighter is breathing. If you cannot hear any breathing, this is an indication that the firefighter is in respiratory arrest. Crack open the bypass valve and get going.
If the firefighter is breathing, you can simply transfill air from the RAS. If the RAS has a regulator, you can attach the RAS regulator to the member’s face piece. Cracking open the bypass may be helpful in every situation because it eases breathing effort, cools the face of the firefighter, and helps him calm down; but monitor the rate of flow. Use a low, controlled flow (not wide open).
If the member’s SCBA is usable, readjusting straps is quicker than applying the RAS, and you have the air supply of two cylinders. If you need to apply the RAS in a low-heat situation, it’s best to position yourself at the head of the down firefighter. If you can kneel down, lift the firefighter’s head and cradle it in your lap. It’s easier to work from the head with your hands in front of you than try to apply a face piece while straddling the victim. Always carry the RAS face piece with the head harness folded over the lens of the face piece. This allows the rescuer to apply the face piece to the face of the firefighter without the straps getting in the way. With one hand, press the face piece firmly against the face. With the other hand, reach over the crown of the head, grab the head harness, and pull it toward you over the head. Start from the neck line and work your way up, tightening the face piece. Make sure the face piece is centered on the face, the chin is inside the chin cup, and then finish tightening the straps. Crack open the bypass valve and get going.
In a high-heat scenario, you’re going to be crawling in on your belly and need to get behind the down firefighter. If you’re going to use a transfill technique, roll the firefighter on his right side to access the quick-connect valve located at the base of the air cylinder. If the SCBA has a quick-connect valve on the chest regulator, you may have to roll the firefighter to the left. If you’re going to apply the RAS face piece, roll the firefighter to one side and get right behind him. If possible, move forward so the back of the firefighter’s head is at your chest level. Then apply the face piece in the same manner.
You have lots of options; you must practice them. Existing head harnesses can be retrofitted with rings at the end of the adjustment straps and a two- by five-inch Nomex™ tab can be sewn to the center edge of the harness netting for easier donning while wearing firefighting gloves.
Putting an SCBA face piece on another firefighter is not something we’re good at. I think we just haven’t given it much thought. I’ve asked around, and most company officers aren’t drilling their crews on this technique. This isn’t a skill reserved for RITs. If you’re entering a fire, you’ll have a buddy. If he goes down and loses his face piece, it’s up to you to put it back on correctly. Can you do it quickly? Can you do it blindfolded?
RAUL A. ANGULO, a veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He is also on the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development, and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.