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SCBA ‘short cuts’ put firefighters at risk

Often overlooked, SCBA straps and buckles are an important part of reducing a firefighter’s fatigue and entanglement risk


The SCBA harness is designed so that when all of the straps and buckles are properly done up, firefighters experience less fatigue.

Photo/U.S. Air Force by Kemberly Groue

There are several common SCBA problems frequently seen on the fireground that can eventually lead to bigger problems. Two of the very basic parts of the SCBA, and a commonly overlooked or ignored problem, are straps and buckles.

There is a lot of technology incorporated into the SCBA to make it a safe product and to protect firefighters from the IDLH environment. Of the entire SCBA, the straps and buckles are the most low-tech component, but are an intricate part of the SCBA.

They are designed to hold the SCBA to the firefighter’s back and waist. This is an important aspect of wearing the SCBA — without the straps and buckles, SCBA falls off.

A great deal of ergonomic study and testing went into the design of the straps and buckles to make the SCBA easier to wear and use. The SCBA harness is designed so that when all of the straps and buckles are properly done up, firefighters experience less fatigue.

Buckle up

Wearing SCBA properly means cinching the waist straps tight and buckling them. It also means using the chest buckle if the SCBA has one and wearing the pack low on back near the tailbone — this shifts the weight of tank from smaller shoulder muscles to larger trunk muscles, thus cutting fatigue.

So why do we still see photos and videos of firefighters on scene with their SCBA waist strap hanging unbuckled down by their legs? I believe there are two answers to this question.

The first is laziness and complacency. The laziness factor comes in from just not taking the extra 10 seconds to snap the waist belt together and cinch it up tight. Instead, it is supposedly easier and quicker to just put on the shoulder straps.

The complacency factor comes in from consistent false alarms that do not see the SCBA being used. So after a while, the SCBA is ignored and becomes a nuisance.

Fashion statement

The second answer is style — this is where we have the “G.Q. firefighter.” To fit in and look like a cool firefighter, the straps are left unbuckled. This can be due to peer pressure from other firefighters or as a result from a culture fostered around taking short cuts.

So how does this apply to a domino effect on the fire ground? In firefighter survival training, we teach firefighters to always ensure they are properly dressed so that they are combat ready.

This leads to a properly equipped firefighter ready to conduct an interior attack. When the SCBA straps and buckles are not done up right, this will lead to smaller problems developing on the fire ground — such as the straps getting snagged in objects they are walking past or working near.

If firefighters are willing to overlook doing up the straps, what else are they willing to overlook? This ties into their general attitude towards doing things right all the time.

Taking too many short cuts eventually leads to problems arising for the firefighter and others. Take the extra time to ensure that things are done right and are done right all the time, consistently.

The next time you are doing SCBA training, make sure that all the straps are done up right including the waist belt. Make it apart of your muscle memory.

This article, originally published June 9, 2014, has been updated

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.