Engine Company, Fire Department, Ladder Company

Creative SCBA Drills Prevent Malfunctions

Issue 3 and Volume 15.

SCBA bottle
In this drill, a full SCBA bottle is lowered (1) to a trapped firefighter, who receives it (2) and 
unties the rope. The firefighter removes the SCBA’s back assembly (3) while remaining on air 
and releases the cylinder band (4) so the bottle is free. The cylinder valve is shut off (5) and 
the firefighter has to bleed the system by breathing the remaining air in the line or opening 
the bypass valve. The high-pressure hose is disconnected from the bottle, and the empty bottle 
is quickly switched out (6) for the full one. Attaching the high-pressure hose nut to the bottle’s 
main valve (7) is the hardest part. It is usually where the firefighter runs out of breath and has 
to remove his or her facepiece. Once the high-pressure hose is connected, the main valve of 
the full SCBA bottle can be opened (8), charging the regulator system and allowing the 
firefighter to breathe normally.

Drilling on fundamentals can be boring. The response to the company officer’s announcement of another SCBA drill can be, “We already know how to do that,” or “How many ways can you sling a mask?” Yet, I’ve been to fires where a member has backed out of the burning structure early in the attack and blamed it on an SCBA malfunction. OK, right, maybe…

I’m not going to question the firefighter on the fireground when he/she is already frustrated and embarrassed. When this happened early in my career – I had a low-pressure hose come undone from the regulator and had to bail out because I started breathing heavy smoke – I blamed it on SCBA malfunction. The round connecting nut could have worked its way loose while crawling around. But in reality, I was most likely so pumped up with adrenalin and excitement that I probably did not attach the low-pressure hose correctly by twisting the nut down until it was snug – and the hose disengaged from the regulator.

If you create a problem scenario, whether based on a true incident, a case study, or one you make up, you put the firefighters in a position of having to take action to solve the problem. Firefighters like solving problems; it’s in our nature. We also like a challenge, and we like competition. If you can combine all these elements into a training drill, it will be anything but boring. Making the scenario and training realistic helps the crew take it seriously.

Here’s an example.

My goal: To get the crew to spend more time operating the various components of the SCBA in addition to the regular morning checks.

The scenario: Let’s say a firefighter gets trapped in a building collapse. The firefighter ends up in a survivable void space, but there’s smoke and low oxygen levels, and the firefighter needs to stay on air to survive. 

The rapid intervention group (RIG) has been deployed, but it’s going to take some time to break through all the concrete and timbers. The firefighter’s air is at 700 psi and will most likely be depleted before the rescue can be made. A team member lowers an SCBA through the access hole down to the trapped firefighter using a rope. The trapped firefighter uses the quick-connect trans-fill hose to get more air reserve. 

This is a fairly easy skill. Most firefighters do not have any problems performing this task. You’re trying to teach some skills here, so progress from easy to hard. After they are successful, add a few more challenges to make it harder.

Firefighters should be attempting this with gloves on, but if they don’t, do not stop them. Let them finish the drill. Then tell them to do it again with gloves on. But we said the space was smoky. Now have them repeat the drill blindfolded.

Next, change the scenario. This time the firefighter lowering the SCBA unit finds that the backpack assembly keeps getting hung up on debris. Time is running out. The decision is made to simply lower a full bottle by itself.

The goal: The trapped firefighter has to remove his or her SCBA backpack assembly while remaining on air and change over to the new bottle while holding his or her breath. This is where the real challenge and competition takes place. Realistic? Perhaps we’re reaching, but it makes the training fun and keeps firefighters engaged. (I was surprised how well this was received by the first company I tried it with.)

There’s no specific sequence. Firefighters will work this out on their own. Some are right-handed and some are left-handed. Some will point the main valve of the bottle towards them, and some will point it away. 

They’ll figure out what works best for them with the least amount of moves so the bottle transition is smooth. 

The first firefighter accomplished the drill in 20 seconds, making it look easy. I thought this drill would be over in less than five minutes. The second firefighter got to 60 seconds and ran out of breath before he was able to recharge the SCBA unit. Unwilling to accept defeat, he tried again. Still, he was unable to complete the task while holding his breath. The first firefighter went again. This time, his time was 55 seconds. The second firefighter made two more attempts, but was unable to complete the drill. He came close, but no cigar. 

I’m not in the best of shape, but I am a pretty good long distance swimmer and I know I can hold my breath for at least one minute. I actually practice this on a regular basis. (A tip for company officers when drilling: let the new guys go first. You’ll pick up short cuts and tricks by watching their errors.)

Holding Your Breath

I had already planned my strategy: be deliberate, but don’t rush, you can do this in 60 seconds. Holding your breath under water while keeping still is a lot easier than holding your breath while performing a physical task. Your cells use up the oxygen reserve in your lungs and the buildup of carbon dioxide happens quicker than you think.

I couldn’t do it. I came close three times, but ran out of breath. When that face piece suddenly collapsed in suction against my face, I had to pull it away so I could breathe.

This drill started about 11 a.m. The three of us were at this for nearly an hour. We finally tired of holding our breath and vowed to try again after dinner. 

Here’s what we figured out: This drill is impossible to do in one breath with gloves. It’s nearly impossible, but doable, while blindfolded.

The first challenge is timing the consumption of the residual air in the system. When you first turn off the main cylinder valve of the bottle, you cannot disconnect the high-pressure hose until you bleed the system. 

This can happen in 3 or 4 breaths. You’ll find that the last full breath may not be enough to bleed the system – or maybe the last breath sufficient to bleed the system isn’t quite a full breath. You can also play with bleeding the system with the bypass valve, but it requires extra steps and movement. 

The High-Pressure Hose

Disconnecting the high-pressure hose is easy, and so is exchanging the bottle. The hard part is threading the high-pressure hose completely onto the new bottle. This is the Achilles’ heel of the drill. Success and failure (in a fun sense because this is not a required critical skill) hinges on the firefighter’s ability to quickly thread the high-pressure hose without cross-threading it. It is also difficult to get the hose connection to properly seat into the main valve of the bottle so the threads will begin to catch. 

A note of caution: Safety should always be a component of any hands-on drill. The only safety issue was trying to unscrew the high-pressure hose nut off the main valve of the bottle before the system was completely bled off. There will be pressure against the nut, making it difficult to unscrew. Once the air is bled off, it unscrews with minimal effort. It’s more of a caution to prevent damage to the SCBA unit than to prevent personal injury.

Don’t let the competition become so fierce that members unscrew the high-pressure hose before the air is bled out. It’s possible to blow an “O” ring inside the connecting unit. Make it a rule before you start the drill. 

Do not damage the SCBA unit. The air must be completely bled before disconnecting the high-pressure hose from the bottle.

My goal was met. I incorporated a challenge, a skill, competition and fun so my firefighters would spend time operating the various components of the SCBA. This drill builds confidence for firefighters and sets up a challenge for them to set a personal best. Don’t be surprised if you hear a bunch of clanging bottles and a racket coming from the apparatus bay and find your crew performing this evolution on their own. Trust me, it’s going to happen.

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Angulo, a veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is 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 U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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