When firefighters hear the term “air management” they often think of the ways they were taught to maximize their working time while on air in an IDLH environment. They picture consumption courses, spaghetti drills, and all the fun things from recruit school and other trainings that aided them in prolonging their operational time while wearing their SCBA. They think about skip breathing and various techniques taught by others to help get the last breath possible out of that bottle. Those are all ways to manage your air supply, but air management comes well before you don the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) en route to a run for a fire and make your crawl into a smoke filled hallway.
NFPA Standard 1404 covers anything and everything to do with air management and what firefighters should and shouldn’t do. These items include exiting the IDLH environment before consuming your reserve air supply, letting us know that our low air alarm is our reminder that we are now breathing our reserve air supply, and then a revision that took place in 2006 stated that firefighters should exit the IDLH environment BEFORE their low air alarm activated. The majority of the SCBAs in service today have been built to emit a low air alarm at 25% of the bottle life left, but there was a revision to the NFPA 1981 Standard for Open-Circuit SCBAs in 2013 that changed this low air alarm activation from 25% to 33%. We know that 30 minute bottles DO NOT give us 30 minutes, and neither do their 45-60 minute bottle counterparts, respectively. This can only be improved by spending time in our SCBA and training. What the standard change from 25% to 33% does mean is our operational periods inside of these structures will fall even shorter if firefighters aren’t preparing themselves better for the conditions they will be called to work in. What I want to remind you of, however, is the fact that these air management skills and standards on low air alarms are actually cut shorter than what those figures show us, and it’s nobody’s fault but our own.
It’s nobody’s fault but our own because we’re responsible for the rig checks every single shift, or if a volunteer department, on a regular basis. It’s nobody else’s job to check their SCBA every shift but our own and it’s the Driver/Engineer’s job to check the spare bottle levels during rig checks at the beginning of our tour of duty. What is considered low? Is 3500 PSI on a spare bottle in a compartment ok? I mean; it is just a “spare” bottle. When doing your own individual SCBA check for your jump seat of the day ask yourself, “Is this 3500 PSI in this SCBA ok with me?” The answer should be a resounding NO from EVERYONE! I don’t know about you, but when I was in recruit school and you hit your low air alarm the drill field instructors would usually make you quit doing what you were doing and breathe the rest of your bottle down from the low air alarm activation until your last breath, or sometimes just the last 500 PSI. This taught us how much time we really had once our low air alarm activated if trapped or lost, and how long we could actually make that little amount of 500 or 1125 PSI last. The results we’re quite shocking, and while they varied, most could make that last amount of air last for quite some time. So, in reality, anything less than full could be a life or death decision we make correct?
Full. What is full? We know 4500 PSI is full, but we also know that filling these bottles causes friction, friction causes heat, heat causes expansion, and when these bottles go from warm to cool, the air pressure inside condenses down. So a bottle that reads 4400-4500 may actually end at the 4100 PSI mark when it cools down. If the bottle was really hot filled fast that 4500 PSI reading could condense down to 3800 PSI or less. What does your department mandate on a full bottle? What are your personal rules for a full bottle? If you or your departments do not have a “standard rule”, I would highly recommend putting one in place. The majority of people will tell you that 4000 PSI on a bottle is good, and I will concur that that’s very manageable. The pictures attached are of spare bottles I pulled from the bottle compartments around the Engine I did rig check on during my last shift at the firehouse. They were all at 4200 PSI or above. I have heard people state that 3000 PSI is PLENTY to work with. Is it really? If we as firefighters are only getting 12-20 minutes average working time out of a 30 minute bottle with a 25% low air activation alarm, how low will that number fall when it’s at 3000 PSI and the low air alarm is activating at 33% bottle life? 6-8 minutes is probably a close ball park range and that’s with firefighters going on air at the point of entry; not yard breathing or door dancing away their air supply. I would recommend not going below the 3800 PSI mark. This is a department wide number that I think is manageable for career and volunteer departments alike, but 3000 PSI or anywhere near that amount is absolutely too low and unacceptable. We swore to protect the citizens we serve to the best of our ability. I would like to think we could be our best for much longer than 6-8 minutes, correct?
The air management is on us’. It starts with rig checks and SCBA checks by us’. We control how long we can operate in the IDLH environment. We control how low or full our SCBA bottles are well before the alarm sounds and the rig leaves the firehouse with the Q pegged, heading through a busy intersection to the report of a fire with victims trapped. So ask yourself, can you knock out the primary and get those victims out in 6 minutes? You swore you could.