Have you ever run out of air while fighting a fire? If so, you’re not alone; most firefighters have, and it is not something they will ever forget.
Whether you are in a training environment or working a real incident, there’s always that moment of panic when you try to take a breath and find that you… can’t. It’s difficult to describe to non-fire service folks. It’s kind of like having someone put their hand over your mouth unexpectedly so you can’t breathe while you’re sleeping. Or running a hundred-yard dash. It’s a scary feeling.
For firefighters, training and experience kick in, and they take steps to try to get help or get out. During training situations, instructors may induce or simulate empty air bottles to see if trainees will panic and whether they can safely extricate themselves. In a real-life situation, this would involve a mayday call, “buddy breathing,” and then exiting the IDLH environment. A person can breathe smoke in some cases and survive for a short time, even though there will be a price to pay later. Make no mistake about it, this is a true emergency and it happens to us all too frequently.
We all know what has happened to firefighters who have found themselves in this situation; sometimes they manage to get to safety and sometimes they don’t. In either case, their experiences become learning lessons for the fire service as a whole. The best fire departments train their members to manage their air usage and always exit the situation before their low-air warnings bell sound.
But many times, it’s hard to manage your air and still fulfil your mission. An air bottle rated at 30 minutes will really only last for 15, and usually even less than that. A firefighter doing forcible entry, advancing a hose line, or crawling down a smoky hallway dragging a victim to safety can easily suck up an air bottle up in 7-10 minutes. When you consider how long it takes to enter a fire building, search for victims or the seat of the fire, perform a rescue or extinguishment action and then exit, you realize that those few minutes get eaten up very quickly.
Now, imagine you are fighting a fire in a high-rise building, a large complicated structure, a tunnel, or even a ship fire. In each of these situations, it may take 10-15 minutes just to get to wherever you need to be, so you may be out of air before you have the chance to even do anything. Again, these situations happen on a daily basis across the country.
How does your department plan to get dozens or even hundreds of air bottles (LAFD used over 600 of them at the First Interstate Bank fire) up to a fire floor of a high-rise, or into tunnels, underground structures, or other large complexes? Whatever your plans dictate, this is a massive undertaking that will involve a large number of firefighters that could otherwise be working the fire. And no matter how this task is accomplished, it guarantees that responders will experience higher levels of fatigue.
What if you could fill bottles and get air when and where you need it? You can – by using existing FARS technology.
FARS is an acronym for Firefighter Air Replenishment Systems. Without getting technical, it is a building-installed system similar in concept to water standpipes, but delivers safe reliable breathing air instead of water. With FARS, you can fill bottles throughout a building, using either rupture-containment fill stations located approximately every three stories, or emergency fill panels normally located every three floors in a high-rise or medium-rise building, or every 250 feet in large horizontal structures. During emergencies, you can even fill the bottle under full SCBA respiration, all in 2 minutes or less.
Hundreds of FARS systems have already been installed and are operating across the United States. Many large and small jurisdictions across the country were early adopters in Arkansas, California, Florida, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Those fire departments had to develop their own fire code provisions but now that FARS is included as Appendix L in the 2015 edition of the International Fire Code, standardized code language exists, making adoption very easy. Over 400 buildings include FARS, many more are currently under construction slated to include FARS, and many fire service leadership and safety organizations, like the IAFF, the IAFC, the National Association of State Fire Marshals, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, and the Fire Smoke Coalition have endorsed the technology for firefighter safety.
Some say that the problem of air replenishment is resolved with elevator capture or the use of dedicated fire elevators, but that’s not enough. Others argue it’s too expensive, but there is no cost to fire departments.
Want more information? A quick Internet search will give you all you need.
So, the next time you find yourself lugging two spare air bottles along with all your gear up and down multiple stories in a high-rise, you need to ask yourself about a better way. Instead of wondering if the bottle on your back will be enough to get you in and back out of that burning high-rise, warehouse, tunnel, or large complex, you need to wonder why more isn’t being done to help mitigate your risk. Before this happens to you again maybe you should ask your leaders why you aren’t using available FARS technology. And the next time the worst happens and our brothers and sisters run out of air and have to battle for their own lives, we all need to ask ourselves why we continue to allow them to be exposed when simple solutions exist.
Fire departments that have experienced a line-of-duty death know that no excuse is ever good enough when the hard questions are inevitably asked about why they didn’t have what they needed to get the job done… and then, go home again.
The time for excuses is over, and the time for change is now.
Mario H. Trevino is a 40-year fire service veteran. He has served as Fire Chief in Las Vegas, NV, San Francisco, CA, and Bellevue, WA. He has spoken at many national and international fire service educational venues, and continues to teach for a fire service degree program and the National Fire Academy. He is a former President of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs and has testified before U.S. Congressional Committees on four occasions. He holds a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, both in Public Administration, and completed a Harvard Fellowship in 1998. He is a line-of-duty cancer survivor.