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The Domino Effect
by Mark van der Feyst

Why not using SCBA will kill firefighters

SCBA is the most important piece of PPE, and the reasons for not using it are no longer valid

By Mark van der Feyst

One of the greatest innovations in the fire service is the self-contained breathing apparatus. It has allowed firefighters to be more effective while providing a high level of respiratory protection.

We are able to gain deeper access into burning structures to perform rescue functions, locate and suppress the fire and prevent further property damage. It has become a basic piece of our equipment.

Out of everything that we wear, the SCBA provides the highest level of protection. The human body has many systems that work together to keep us functioning and living.

The respiratory system is both the biggest system and the easiest to compromise. One quick breath can make the difference between life and death. What we inhale affects the whole body.

We cannot always see the contaminants that are present within the environment that will harm us. This is why we must always wear of SCBA whenever we are in any kind of immediately dangerous to life and health environment.

No excuses
Yet we still have firefighters responding to different types of calls where an IDLH environment is present who not wearing their SCBA. It is not because of a lack of availability of SCBAs. It is not because of SCBA performance being substandard as far as operation; nor is it because of cost to use it.

Every fire department within the North American continent has access to an adequate amount of SCBAs. There was a time when this wasn't the case — they were either absent or in short supply. But through with health and safety legislation, they have become a common fixture on apparatus.

SCBAs are tested to such rigorous and extreme levels that we would not be able to survive the conditions if we were to be caught in them: the SCBA would still function as it is intended to.

A third-party, NIOSH, conducts SCBA testing to ensure their performance meets or exceeds NFPA and industry standards. Every SCBA unit must meet NIOSH approval and be labeled as such.

Cheap to use
SCBAs are expensive to purchase and maintain, but they are relatively cheap to use. The only commodity used when in full operation is breathing air and refilling the tanks with regular breathing air is very inexpensive.

The units also have personal safety alarms and heads-up displays that require batteries to operate — often AA batteries. These, too, are inexpensive.

This one piece of equipment is so vital that when it is missing or not being used, it compromises firefighter safety and effectiveness. And this creates many dominoes for that firefighter and for the fireground that eventually handicaps both. 

About the author

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1999 and is currently a full-time firefighter in Ontario, Canada. Mark is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He is a local-level suppression instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and an instructor for the Justice Institute of British Columbia. He is also the lead author of the book "Residential Fire Rescue." You can contact Mark with feedback at

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Jerry Clark Jerry Clark Monday, March 24, 2014 12:19:09 PM Would like to have read a bit more about the post-fire hazards from continued off-gassing of poisonous vapors. SCBA is a must when conducting the cause and origin investigation.
Kc Anderson Kc Anderson Monday, March 24, 2014 12:32:04 PM Would like to see Firefighters use their SCBA's during all activities related to any kind of breaching with chain and rotary style saws, There is always particulated build up during these activities and were never sure what the dust is made up of, its not worth taking the chance.
Brian Streeter Brian Streeter Monday, March 24, 2014 12:55:17 PM if we only knew this when we were younger
Doug Reed Doug Reed Monday, March 24, 2014 1:25:16 PM "It is not because of a lack of availability of SCBAs. It is not because of SCBA performance being substandard as far as operation; nor is it because of cost to use it". What it boils down to IMO is complacency and no enforcement of SOG's. On my department, I have seen several times when members did not wear their SCBA's and no correction by others all the way up to the Asst. Chief, appointed before I was appointed Chief. When I made the correction, gruffly I might add, it was taken to the Director of Public Safety and I was suspended, still no excuse and unfortunately in my corner of the world, someone will have to get hurt or injured before needed change takes place!
Adam Adrian Crown Adam Adrian Crown Wednesday, March 26, 2014 4:10:00 AM There is NO excuse for not using your SCBA -- but I, too, have seen people disdain using it. Complacency, maybe. Incompetence, maybe. Maybe just plain hubris. Would you NOT wear a seat belt unless you were certain a crash was imminent? Better to use it and not need it, than to need it and not use it.
Allen MacNeill Allen MacNeill Thursday, March 27, 2014 3:40:23 AM This is incomprehensible to me; why would someone not use SCBA? The stuff we keep in our houses now produces incredibly toxic fumes when it burns (and even when it just gets very hot). I've worn SCBA into several very bad fires and knew it basically saved my life. Even with it I had trouble breathing for a few days afterwards each time. WTF?

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