Gear Guide: Shielding your airway
August 31, 2020 By Nathan Pocock
In our self-rescue and RIT training, we must talk of a time, unfortunately, when all our options run out and our best chance is to sit sheltered in place, make our bottle last as long as we can, while we await assistance from our RIT. But, what happens when this wait is longer than we want and we run out of air in our tanks?
If we find ourselves out of air, best efforts should be made to shield our airway. The following methods are our last-ditch efforts to stay alive in our self-rescue attempt. We must do our best with air management to avoid these situations. When we find ourselves in a mayday situation, the decision must be made based on condition and circumstance; whether or not you have the energy and/or air to self-rescue or whether you are best to shelter in place and conserve air to give RIT and yourselves the best chance of a rescue.
“Dying” in your mask
I have met many who were taught if they ran out of air to just stay in their mask and go unconscious. The idea behind this is that you will not expose your lungs to super heated gases and thus be easier brought back to life. The problem this can raise is unrealistic training to fire ground expectations.
It is easy to say, “die in your mask.” It can easily be falsely trained to turn off an unsuspecting student’s bottle and watch them squirm as we remind them constantly “don’t remove your mask.” Once we are satisfied with their squirming, we reach down turn the bottle back on and say, “good job.”
We never let the student stay in their mask until they are unconscious and we certainly don’t do it consistently enough to make people comfortable enough to just voluntarily suffocate themselves during a life-threatening situation on the fire ground.
As humans—like any animal—we have base instincts for survival and our bodies will do their best to keep us that way. We must teach methods that direct this instinct in a constructive way instead of directly working against it. Would you ever ask a firefighter to perform a task on the fire ground they have never performed in training before?
We must train our members to be able to use techniques that can be trained—both for ease of retention and realistic application on the fire ground. The following techniques are designed to give you a chance for success keeping these things in mind.
The easiest method of shielding the airway is to simply remove your regulator from your face piece to allow air to pass in and out of the mask. To provide extra protection, we can take our balaclava from below our chin and pull it up and over our regulatory port in the face piece. Bringing the balaclava up will provide one more layer of filtration to the air coming in. It will not cool it or filter it completely, but we are not working in ideals at this point and time.
Now that we have air being filtered as best we can, we must seek out the coolest and cleanest air by getting low to the ground and working our way away to cooler and fresher areas on the fire ground.
We break a hole low on a wall away from the fire room(s) and seal our mask up against the hole using our gloved hands to further seal the hole in order to breath air from this void space that will hopefully be free of fire and fire gases.
Another option we can have is to disconnect our mask mounted regulator (MMR) from the pack on our shoulder (if your SCBA has this feature). This line can then be inserted into a similar wall void as used in the technique above or if present it can be put down a plumbing drain, dryer vent, washer drain, etc. and we can breathe air from these void spaces and pipes.
I have tested the air quality inside many the pluming stacks inside my fire hall and some gear washer vents and drains in other halls with four gas detectors and have yet to find anything other than breathable room air inside these spaces.
An advantage/disadvantage to disconnecting the MMR and breathing in these spaces is, if in the event you fall unconscious, the effort it takes to suck open the on-demand valve through the MMR is so high. I doubt an unconscious person would be able to inhale hard enough to open the valve, allowing you to “die in your mask” and reducing further exposure. The disadvantage of this technique is it does take a
good amount of effort to get each breath and being well trained in this process would be a must so you expect this difficulty when initiating this self-rescue task without increasing or creating panic.
If your department does not have the quick release option, this technique could also be done by cutting the air line high on your shoulder. Caution must be taken both if you chose to cut the line or if you disconnect. It is adamant that you communicate you have or are about to perform this technique with incoming RIT. The incoming team needs to know when they get to you their air supply options, also you speed up their evaluation in which technique they will use to supply your air. Imagine if you cut this line and a RIT comes, notices your bottle’s empty, and uses the UAC connection to equalize bottles. In this instance the UAC would simply waste air out of the cut airline until disconnected. If the MMR has simply been disconnected and we charge the UAC, we will need to recognize this because no air will be getting to our downed firefighter until we reconnect the MMR back into the pack, where it was first disconnected.
Throughout any mayday, we need to keep RIT informed as to our self-rescue efforts to better coordinate the successful rescue and none of this is changed with any of the techniques discussed above.
I want to know as an air firefighter on a RIT that I have a balaclava in the way of the SCBA face piece that needs to be removed before I can install the new one from my air bag. Likewise, I want to know if I can hook a disconnected MMR into my buddy breathing line off my air bag, whether I’m going to need to do a full MMR swap, the list goes on.
The same principle applies here as a mayday firefighter converting their own SCBA while awaiting rescue. Keep RIT informed of your self-rescue attempts to ensure you don’t hinder your own rescue through lack of communication.
Nathan Pocock is a career firefighter in British Columbia and a member of the technical rescue team and Canada task force one HUSAR team. He is the owner and operator of Prepare4, a fire fighting training company based in Vancouver that specializes in forcible entry and rapid intervention training as well as several other areas of the fire service. He is a husband and father of two.
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