By Chief David Kerr, Plano Fire Dept. (ret.) and Capt. Mike Gagliano, Seattle Fire Dept. (ret.)
Two things are essential to conduct a successful fire attack: air and water. A limited supply of air or water will greatly increase the danger to both firefighters and the citizens they are trying to save. Insufficient water supply allows the fire to continue its growth, extension, and destruction. Low air supply limits the time firefighters can stay in the structure and increases their risk of running out of air while conducting hazardous operations. And the consequences can be deadly.
Over 100 years ago, the development of water mains, pumping systems, and in-building standpipes solved the problem of providing a continuous supply of water in large structure fires. These systems allowed the successful delivery of water to distant locations in a building that otherwise would have required a laborious, time-consuming effort to supply water. A steady supply of water, in close proximity to the fire, allowed firefighters to focus on fire attack, search, and other critical operations instead of on moving water to the scene.
Unfortunately, air supply and air replenishment lagged behind water supply as a priority, and air delivery solutions were much slower to be developed.
That changed with the introduction of the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). With SCBA, firefighters could enter hazardous atmospheres for a short period of time and conduct critical operations. But the air supply was limited to what firefighters carried on their backs, and it was quickly depleted during the strenuous work. After an average of 20-30 minutes, air tanks were empty and firefighters had to leave the dangerous environment or risk exposure to the superheated and smoky air that causes so many fireground deaths.
Fortunately, the development of Firefighter Air Replenishment Systems (FARS) has mirrored the successful model of the water standpipe: Air is supplied from the street, pumped through a fixed piping system, and delivered to the distant locations inside a structure where firefighters need it. They can get air resupply without having to travel too far from where they are working, and without the risk of exposed to the toxic atmosphere.
This is a game-changer for fireground operations. Fire attack much is more efficient and exponentially safer as FARS become standard in large structures. But fire attack is not the only phase of fire that benefits from a sufficient supply of air replenishment. There are four key phases of the fire that necessitate being in the hazardous atmosphere to work. Numerous articles have chronicled the benefits of FARS during fire attack. This article will focus on the remaining three phases where FARS can be a lifesaver: search and rescue, overhaul, and fire investigation.
Search & Rescue
Saving lives is the driving force behind most fireground operations. Our strategic and tactical efforts are focused on giving every possible chance of survival to those at risk.
But doing so requires that we can get to them. Sometimes, that means we will be going into superheated, smoke-filled spaces where they are trapped. Air is essential for search and rescue operations, and we burn through it fast. Without enough air, firefighters are forced to leave the scene to access air resupply, whether the search has been finished or not.
In a high-rise, firefighters conduct dangerous search and rescue operations on the floors well above the fire floor. While buildings have floor separations from flame spread, firefighters cannot assume all multi-story buildings provide smoke migration protection. Because flexibility is needed for structural integrity, tall buildings sway quite a bit, facilitating the migration of smoke. In addition, smoke and hot gases rise, as pressure from the fire moves the smoke outward and upward. This movement can also extend downward depending on a variety of factors including internal and external temperatures, building configuration, and installed systems.
The dangers of fire smoke are well known and well documented. Even in fully sprinklered buildings, the hazards of smoke will be present and are very real threats to occupants not outfitted with SCBA. Getting to upper floors and navigating complex hallways and spaces can make search and rescue operations time consuming. The search is made significantly faster and easier for firefighters who can simply get their air resupply in the stairwell, as opposed to having to descend numerous flights of stairs to find the staging area (typically located two floors below the fire). In many high-rise fires, firefighters run out of air but continue rescue operations with no immediate air resupply available. This is often not well-documented in the after-action reports, since no one wants to highlight logistical failures or create a record of safety issues that could lead to litigation. The increased risk this adds to firefighters cannot be overstated. The long-term health impacts of exposure to smoke are devastating.
If your department puts a high priority on life safety and citizen-survival, FARS are an absolute necessity for this phase of the fire.
Most firefighters would not list the salvage/overhaul phase as one of their favorite duties. It’s a necessary operation that comes after the majority of the fireground operations are complete. Digging out hot spots, protecting property from smoke and water damage, clearing out debris, and ensuring there is no extension of fire are just a few of things addressed in this phase.
Because we are not dealing with extreme heat or dense levels of smoke, this phase is viewed as less dangerous. But for those doing the work, the dangers in the air around them are deadly. Significant levels of toxic gases, asphyxiants, and carcinogenic particulates are present long after the fire is extinguished. The work occurring stirs up a steady stream of these deadly elements and the hard physical labor involved creates great exertion — and very deep breathing.
Wearing an SCBA is physically demanding, often done by firefighters already fatigued from fire attack. It is understandable why the tendency has been to drop the SCBA prior to knowing how deadly the atmosphere could be. And when getting air to distant locations is extremely difficult, it became less of a priority in the overhaul/salvage phase. Walking down from an upper floor to the staging area for a bottle swap to do more overhaul exacerbated firefighter fatigue and added time to an already unpleasant task.
With FARS in the stairwell, getting air resupply occurs at or near the level of the salvage and overhaul. It doesn’t make moving charred debris or tarping furniture any more fun. But it will greatly decrease your chances of inhaling cancer-causing particulates, being overcome by toxic gases, or wasting valuable time and energy traipsing up and down stairs.
The final phase of fire involves all the operations needed to conduct the fire investigation. In the past fire investigators never wore SCBAs, since the fire was under control and the risks were considered minor. As described earlier, toxic gasses are still present as the scene continues to smolder and cool. Fire investigators digging and sifting through fire debris stir up toxic particulates and gases, which continue to circulate in the air. This can be the longest phase of the fire event as investigations may last for several hours.
Fire investigators are now required to wear SCBAs until the atmosphere is tested and clear. The amount of time needed to complete their work and turn over the building can be greatly reduced if air supply is readily available. FARS provides ready air resupply and reduces to the temptation to cut corners and “just breathe a little smoke to get the job finished.”
All Phases Need Air
This should be clear to all who care about effective fireground operations: whatever the phase, a steady supply of air is a necessity. It’s not just something that’s nice to have if you can manage it. Our history is filled with line of duty deaths and a disheartening number of cancer fatalities that resulted from the impacts of breathing smoke. Avoiding smoke exposure was difficult at one time, but that is absolutely not true now. Quality SCBAs, combined with progressive air management policies and the technological advance of FARS makes air resupply very do-able.
Now is the time for leadership to step up and answer the call. Your firefighters will give everything they’ve got to fulfill the mission in front of them. Leadership must fulfill their mission and give them the necessary tools to do the job safely and effectively.
For more information on FARS, visit the Firefighter Air Coalition’s resource page at https://aircoalition.org/firefighter-air-replenishment-systems/.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
David Kerr has more than 40 years of experience covering municipal and industrial fire protection. He spent 35 years with the Plano (TX) Fire Department, 18 of those as the Fire Marshal. He currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at the National Fire Academy, Sam Houston State, and Texas A&M (TEEX’s). He is a technical committee member of NFPA’s National Fire Alarm Code, serving over 35 years, and actively involved in code development at the local, state, and national levels. David graduated from Oklahoma State, and received his master’s degree from Texas A&M University. He is a member of several national fire service organizations and served on the boards of NFPA’s International Fire Marshal’s Association executive board and the Executive Fire Officers under the IAFC. He also serves as an advisor to the United States Fire Administration prevention programs, and as chair of the Regional Code Correlating Committee for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Mike Gagliano has more than 33 years of fire/crash/rescue experience with the Seattle Fire Department and the United States Air Force. He retired as the captain of Ladder 5 and remains a proud member of Fire Station 31. Captain Gagliano is the author of numerous fire service articles, and co-authored the bestselling books Air Management for the Fire Service, Challenges of the Firefighter Marriage and the SCBA chapter of the Handbook for Firefighter 1 & 2 from Pennwell. He is a member of the Fire Engineering/FDIC Advisory Board, the Firefighter Air Coalition board of directors, serves on the advisory board of the UL-Firefighter Safety and Research Institute and teaches across the country on air management, fireground tactics, leadership, and company officer development.