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Is that my PASS alarm? The problem with tuning out safety features

Ignoring PASS alarms highlights need to better manage false activations and maintain situational awareness


Over time, firefighters have grown complacent to PASS alarms, essentially tuning them out. This is evidenced in this month’s video where we can hear a PASS alarm sounding – and see no one reacting to it.

Photo/U.S. Fire Administration

One of the most basic yet important pieces of equipment used by firefighters is the SCBA. The SCBA provides us with the highest rated respiratory protection possible for any immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) environment. With the introduction of SCBA to the fire service, firefighters have been able to conduct their jobs with a far superior degree of protection.

Along the way, SCBA have been equipped with redundant safety features. One of those features is the personal alert safety system (PASS) alarm. The PASS alarm is designed to alert others that a firefighter needs help. The alarm can be automatically or manually activated. The reason why the PASS alarm was included as a redundant safety feature was because too many firefighters died in the line of duty in incidents where their manual alarms were turned off – nobody knew they needed help.

A single call for distress is all that a downed firefighter needs in order to alert others to help them so.

The problem: Over time, firefighters have grown complacent to PASS alarms, essentially tuning them out. This is evidenced in this month’s video where we can hear a PASS alarm sounding – and see no one reacting to it.

From the 3:49 minute mark forward, you will hear the sound of a PASS alarm. While the alarm is sounding, many firefighters are busy attending to their tasks; no one is reacting to the alarm.

It’s interesting to note that during the incident, a car alarm also starts blaring at the same time as the PASS alarm. Similarly, when car alarms were first introduced, people immediately reacted to them, but it seems now that no one reacts to them.

The fire service needs a culture shift related to PASS alarms – one where firefighters are again reactive when the alarm sounds, immediately thinking that a brother or sister firefighter needs help. Tuning in to the PASS alarm shows that firefighters are situationally aware and actively listening to the fireground. It is vital that all firefighters are actively invested in the situation and not have tunnel vision on just their task.

Yes, false activations of PASS alarms are an issue – and it’s everybody’s responsibility, not just the officer or incident commander, to manage the problem. And yes, it is sometimes hard to hear your PASS alarm sounding. This is where your fellow firefighters can help you by letting you know it is your alarm and helping you to reset it when it’s a false activation.

The bottom line: Every firefighter on the fireground must make an effort to prevent false activations, so that they can better react to a firefighter who signals they need help using their PASS alarm.

Training time

After watching this video with your company, engage your crew in training using three simple steps:

  • Don your SCBA and practice resetting the PASS alarm before it goes into full alarm;
  • Practice resetting the PASS alarm when it has gone into full alarm; and
  • Discuss with members why it is important for your fellow firefighters to react and respond to the sound of your PASS alarm when it goes off.

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.