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Training Day: 3 ways to master SCBA operation

Use these scenarios to practice monitoring air consumption, operating the SCBA in PPE and buddy breathing

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Proper skills development does not take place by putting a firefighter into a zero-visibility environment (e.g., hood over their SCBA mask) before they’ve mastered the skills with everything in plain sight.


Today’s SCBA provides firefighters with more than just a supply of breathing air. Most units on the market today have:

  • Heads-up display that visually displays information and system condition status to the SCBA’s user (e.g., available air pressure or current rate of air consumption by the user)
  • Rapid intervention crew/universal air connection, commonly known as the buddy breathing connection
  • Bluetooth-enabled electronics that provide wireless connectivity between devices for improved configurability, data transmission/retrieval, firefighter safety and fireground accountability
  • System integrity alarm technology that gives the SCBA user visual and audible alerts that their SCBA’s electronics are in jeopardy due to elevated temperature (Note: If your electronics are at risk, so are you. Either make the environment cooler or get out!)

With the right training and practice to develop and maintain mastery, these advanced features keep firefighters safe on the fireground and can help them prevent and survive a mayday event.

What to practice

Proper skills development does not take place by putting a firefighter into a zero-visibility environment (e.g., hood over their SCBA mask) before they’ve mastered the skills with everything in plain sight.

Only after several successful evolutions with their “eyes open” should a firefighter be given a greater challenge by “turning out the lights.” Because your goal should not just be skills development, but confidence development as well.

Task No. 1: Air supply and consumption awareness

The low-air alarm – officially termed the end-of-service-time indicator – has been a safety feature in firefighter SCBA since the first units appeared on fire scenes more than five decades ago. But this early generation alert has evolved significantly with modern SCBA.

Instruct firefighters to don their SCBA and facepiece, and begin breathing cylinder air. Then note their available air supply (PSI) and divide that number by two to obtain their time to leave threshold. SCBA manufactured since 2012 must have an EOSTI that is set to alarm at 33% of the full cylinder pressure.

But if a firefighter has used 66% of their air to get into the hazard area and do work, they may not have enough air to safely leave the hazard area and still undergo gross decontamination if necessary.

Instead, have firefighters use half of their available air supply to enter the hazard area and do the assigned work, then inform their boss (e.g., company officer, division or group supervisor) that they’re approaching 50% of available air. The incident commander can then make provisions to replace the firefighter or have the entire crew exit the hazard area.

This task is important for two reasons, and technical competence is only one of them. How many times have heard this during a training exercise, when your low-pressure alarm activates:

  • “Relax, you have plenty of air left.”
  • “You have plenty of air to get through the evolution.”
  • “Don’t worry about it, you are safe, this is training.”

Too many. And each time it happens, it reinforces a low regard for air supply versus consumption as we teach both entry-level and incumbent firefighters. Air supply and consumption should be at the forefront of every training session when using an SCBA.

Task No. 2: Operating the SCBA with gloves

Firefighters should also practice the ability to operate all the available features of their SCBA while wearing firefighting gloves. Start by using a thin pair of gloves to develop muscle memory for finding and using those features on the SCBA’s command console.

Then progress to wearing firefighter gloves after the trainees have developed that tactile ability.

Task No. 3: Buddy breathing

Practice using the EBSS buddy breathing features of the SCBA. First, practice buddy to buddy, where firefighter No. 1 connects his or her EBSS hose to firefighter No. 2’s EBSS hose. Firefighters should practice this exercise with firefighter No. 2 in positions that would mimic a firefighter in distress (e.g., supine, prone, lying on one side).

Next, firefighter No. 1 should practice buddy to mask regulator, where firefighter No. 1 connects their buddy breather hose to firefighter No. 2’s RIC UAC to bypass their SCBA. Firefighters should also practice this exercise with firefighter No. 2 in positions that would mimic a firefighter in distress.

SCBA manufacturers provide detailed instructions and downloadable videos to accompany their products. But it’s not enough for firefighters to watch and learn when it comes to critical life support equipment, and that’s what your SCBA is – critical life support equipment.

It’s vitally important to have your firefighters put their hands on the SCBA to demonstrate tasks and to ensure they master donning and doffing, changing batteries, inspection practices for the entire unit, and the operation of today’s integrated electronics.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.

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