When it’s time to go inside, is every member prepared?
In today’s fire service training drill cache, there are several excellent preparatory drills for the use of breathing apparatus. With this article, I want to exclude all the basic SCBA and emergency procedure drills we have in our collective tool boxes and look at the donning/air consumption points of the SCBA.
From day one in the fire academy, firefighters are taught to don the SCBA in one of two methods: over the head or the coat method. From that point students move to the next steps; donning the face piece, seal checks and so on until the SCBA is on and functioning with a general time requirement of sixty seconds or better. Once assigned to a company, firefighters will participate in this type of drill throughout their careers, most likely several times a year, believing that consistency and mastery of the SCBA has been achieved. These types of drills are excellent SCBA training modules that build muscle memory, are we training as we fight? This author believes not. Consider the last fire your company responded to: were the SCBAs laid out in the front yard and did personnel don the units from the word “go”? A more realistic scenario is SCBA is donned from a riding position or cabinet, then the attack line is stretched to an assigned entry point, members don face pieces, check the seals and exhalation valves, and then finish donning the remainder of their personal protective clothing. This is how our organization operates, but we do not train in this manner. The focus of this article is making sure a company is “Door Step Ready”.
Prior to getting to the emphasis of this article, I would like to thank the members of the Mundelein Fire Department, Mundelein, Illinois and the West Chicago Fire Protection District, West Chicago, Illinois for this participating in this study. This study, being coordinated and prepared at the entry point of a structure, began after both departments purchased a forcible entry simulator and several firefighters offered “this is not the way it happens”. We began the study by having personnel in full protective clothing and SCBA in the ready mode stage at a fire station man-door. Members were asked to force an entry point door, then don the remainder of their PPE to simulate starting the fire attack in a single-family residence. At this point a significant disconnect was identified in the member’s ability to don face pieces, check seals and exhalation valves, get protective hoods on properly, don helmets and gloves properly, and be on air within a structure. Hoods were found displaced or forgotten, seals were not getting checked, personnel were making entry without their gloves properly donned. These deficienciethe failure of muscle memory/time stamp to complete this task. In the firefighter’s skill set, when asked to don the SCBA either from a compartment or from the ground, the brain has a check list that advises the muscle memory of the next step in the donning process, and has a built in stop watch advising how the firefighter is doing in the donning process; we must keep in mind the time stamp is developed through experience and prior training sessions. When a member is displaced from the standard donning drill and placed into a simulated or real-life experience and the donning muscle memory process is broken up when additional tasks are added; i.e. hose line stretch or forcing entry, it appears muscle memory breaks down and errors occur.
A more troubling issue was found when the study expanded; the members were not synchronized donning the SCBA during a door step simulation. This can be attributed to the SCBA donning drill generally being conducted without a partner, differing from operations on the fire ground. Members might be put side-by-side in a training scenario, but at that point it is more of a race rather than coordinated effort between the team members. What this study exposed was that depending on age, experience, training, or a combination of all factors, there was a difference in the speed of members getting dressed, making entry, and using the air out of the SCBA. In some instances, the study found that the quicker members used between 8-10 breaths before their partner was ready to enter the structure. For example, in some extreme circumstanceshere different donning techniques were used, some members would don gloves then insert the second stage regulator and go on air; others would insert the second stage regulator, go on air, and then don their gloves. In these scenarios, the study revealed that the quicker members who were on air, waiting for their partners to don their gloves, used between 15-20 breaths before their partners were ready. A worst-case scenario was when one member is ready, on air and the partner had an issue donning their gloves. The prepared partner, or worse, both members could use 20-30 breaths because of extra time taken to remedy the problem; panic and frustration would set in, thus causing rapid respirations.
These types of situations need to be identified and evaluated within the organization. Training should be conducted as we operate to build muscle memories for consistency and success. The SCBA donning drills will always have a purpose in the fire service. These drills offer tremendous training opportunities with familiarity with the SCBA components; i.e., strap locations, making sure the SCBA is completely donned, that the face piece is positioned correctly, that all of the essentials skills of donning the SCBA are addressed. I, by no means recommend deleting these drills from a training program, rather add to your SCBA training agenda a real-life training session to evaluate if a company is “Door Step Ready.”
Do your own evaluation by having a training session. Identify an entry point to a fire building, have members don their full protective clothing, including SCBA, as if dispatched to a reported fire. Have the team assemble at the entry point; no tasks should be assigned at this point in the drill. Members should be low to the ground in the ready position and told to don the remainder of their protective clothing, including the remaining SCBA components. Instructors should evaluate to confirm seals are checked, hoods are up, chin straps are in place, gloves are on and the members go on air at the same time. Follow organizational policies and procedures for protective clothing donning; if the organizational procedure specifies members don their air supply because of the exposure to a toxic environment, then train to that standard. The focus is to have consistency and coordination from members making entry and on their air supply at the same time.
During this first evolution, instructors should evaluate the readiness status of each member. The “quick member” may be fully ready before his team is prepared to make entry. At this point, the “quick member” status should be evaluated for how many breaths are consumed before the team is ready to make entry. The instructors should follow this procedure for each member who becomes ready to make entry. Once the team is ready to make entry, the drill is complete. The team should be instructed to remove their PPE to review the findings on the drill. If the opportunity is available to video the training session, the instructor may find it beneficial to video tape the company as they ready, then play the session for them to view the shortcomings. Once the review is completed, the reinforcement points of the drill should be addressed: 1. proper donning of the PPE, 2. completed SCBA seal checks prior to making entry, 3. status checks to evaluate members’ readiness to make entry, and 4. members are all on air and ready to make entry at the same time. Once the major points are reviewed; the members should be allowed to attempt the drill again to build the muscle memory needed to be “Door Step Ready”. When the instructor is confident the participating members have retained the skills, a time factor can be added. During the study, we found that 25 seconds was a realistic time for the company to be ready. This time stamp should not be used as a bar until members have been allowed to build/practice sufficient muscle memory. The long-term goal for this drill would be two separate training evolutions for SCBA Donning. Evolution 1 would be the current practice of donning the air pack, complete in the benchmark for your organization. Evolution 2 would have members report to a door for the “Door Step” drill outlined above. Instructors should be looking for consistency in donning processes, safety in donning PPE, and consistent air consumption from the teams participating in the drill.
This drill can become advanced by challenging members beyond their standard muscle memory skills. Anytime different skills are introduced into a muscle memory set, there is a chance for breakdown in skills. If the members are asked to actually perform forcible entry and then don their SCBA, the instructors may see the students make the same mistakes that were corrected in the basic “Door Step” drill. If the members are asked to perform an attack line stretch to a door, then preform the “Door Step” drill, again the instructors may see a break down in the process. The instructors must focus on the muscle memory skills set for each function and not allow the members to get ahead, use short cuts, or worse, skip steps to increase speed. The instructors should continually challenge their members in an achievable fashion.
Our instructors found this drill beneficial as did our members. It should be stressed to the participating members that consistency and safety are the focus of this drill. Breaths wasted by one member on the door step can mean the difference between survival and MAY-DAY/RIT activation. Instructors need to maintain a “train the way you fight” focus. Defined skills and practiced muscle memory will prepare personnel to make entry and keep them “Door Step Ready”.