Tangled Up: When your SCBA gets snagged, do you know what to do?

Tangled Up
When your SCBA gets snagged, do you know what to do?
By Homer Robertson

In the last 30 years, the fire service has made huge gains in the area of SCBA use. Today, most departments have strict policies that address when, where and how SCBAs should be used. That’s a long way from the days when we would store a couple of units in boxes on top of the truck and if you tried to use them the old-timers would make fun of you!

In addition to SCBA standard operating procedures (SOPs), the SCBA industry has produced many advancements, such as lightweight carbon bottles, PASS devices and heads-up displays that allow us to monitor our air supply.

If you’re in too much of a hurry when bunking out, it can result in things such as one or both of your suspenders hanging below your coat. This provides two loops that can catch on anything. Company officers should reinforce the proper wearing of PPE, no matter how harmless the little things seem. Photo Glen Ellman

The waist belt is the most important strap on your SCBA. It must be tightly secured to function appropriately. If it’s loose, it creates a loop that can catch on many things. Photo Homer Robertson

Practice disentanglement in the station using the swim method by using webbing or small wire draped over the SCBA bottle. Photo Homer Robertson

Drill 1: Get Dressed
1. Have all your crewmembers dress out in full PPE, including SCBA but without their facemask on.
2. Review each member’s PPE, identifying items that they carry that could become entanglement issues, such as flashlights, glove holders or radios.
3. Work with each member to reduce the number of items they carry, if possible.
4. Ask each member to show you the tools they carry to cut their way out of wire entanglements.

Drill 2: Do It in the Dark
1. Have each member don full PPE and SCBA with a blacked-out facemask.
2. Wrap each member in wire, rope or nylon webbing to simulate wire entanglement on the fireground.
3. Ask each member to demonstrate how they would cut themselves free using the cutting tools they normally carry.
4. Place a wire, rope or nylon webbing loosely over the SCBA bottle top to simulate how the SCBA often gets entangled first (again with full PPE and blacked-out facemask).
5. Ask each member to get on their knees and use the swimming method to disentangle themselves.
Tip: If your department has a mask confidence course, include entanglement as a part of the course.

But as individual firefighters, we can’t rely solely on departmental SOPs and technological advancements to protect us when it comes to SCBA use. Our knowledge level can’t just be “satisfactory”; each of us must possess an expert knowledge of our SCBA. The only real way to receive that kind of knowledge is through training and experience. Note: The training aspect of SCBA use should always come before experience for the simple reason that the fireground is a difficult and dangerous place to learn.

When you think of SCBA training drills, you probably think back to your recruit days, when you had to don and doff the SCBA repeatedly. These drills are good for the entry-level firefighter, but our training must go beyond that. There are many great drills that focus on real-life problems you may face while in an IDLH atmosphere while wearing an SCBA; air management, reduced profile and changing a downed firefighter’s bottle are just a few. These are the types of drills that can save lives when you’re in a tough spot. Along those lines, this month’s Quick Drill focuses on entanglement issues that can occur when wearing an SCBA.  

Entanglement Hazards
What causes us to get entangled on the fireground?

A common mistake firefighters make is that we get in too big of a hurry and we don’t take the time to buckle our SCBA waist strap before entering the building. This provides two hanging catch points that can become entangled in everything from bedsprings to bicycles. Even with the waist strap buckled, if it’s too loose around the waist, it creates a loop that can get hung up on all sorts of things.

Another PPE entanglement issue: complacency in donning bunker pants and coats. If we don’t pull up the suspenders, they hang down outside the PPE ensemble and basically become two big loops looking for something to get hung up on, such as the handlebars of a tricycle or the arm of a chair. So take the time to pull them up!

Entanglement also occurs because we carry so much stuff. Most firefighters love gadgets. We’re always planning for the worst, thinking of all the things we may need when we’re inside some building fighting fire. That means we have strapped to us flashlights, tools, thermal imagers and portable radios. And like the old saying, “The more stuff you have, the more stuff has you.” This is very true when we’re in a hostile environment where there’s a lot of entanglement potential, which is just about any fire we go into that requires us to work our way through the building.

Tip: Review your crew’s PPE and equipment and ask yourself whether there’s a functional need for everything you carry. Are there things you could leave behind on the apparatus—or just not carry at all?

The Hazards of Wire
Now let me play the devil’s advocate: There are two items I think every firefighter should carry, although they don’t necessarily need to hang off of them.

Number 1 is a personal flashlight that has fresh batteries and works properly. Don’t laugh; you know who you are!

Number 2 is a good pair of heavy-duty lineman-style side cutters or dikes. These are great for cutting yourself or your partner out of wire entanglement problems. They are also heavy enough to use as a small hammer or to tap on metal doors or beams if you become trapped.

I consider wire cutters essential because fire buildings can have large amounts of exposed wire just waiting to wrap you up if you’re not prepared. Surprisingly, this wire is not all electrical in nature; it can be wire used in the HVAC ducting that runs in the overhead space. As the ducting melts away after being exposed to heat, it leaves a Slinky-like coil of small-diameter (but strong!) wire that’s extremely hazardous to those moving through the building. In addition, the wire used to hold up the suspended ceiling can cause entanglement.

Tip: The top of the SCBA bottle always seems to get snagged first. If you know that you’re working down a hallway where the ducting has fallen down, push your back against the wall as you move down the hall. This will reduce the chance of wires wrapping around your SCBA bottle.

Although cutters are essential, cutting your way out of an entanglement may not always be the answer. When you first become entangled, don’t just keep going forward. This will only make the problem worse. Instead, stop and back up a step or two. This will loosen the wire. Then, move your arms in a backward-swimming motion to find and remove the wires from your SCBA. This is a good time to move toward the wall and get your bottle against it to reduce your profile.

Don’t Complicate It
As simple as it sounds, just wearing your SCBA correctly, with the waist strap buckled and tight, will go a long way in reducing your entanglement problems. When inevitable entanglements do occur, stay clear-headed, move backward and use the swim method to try to disentangle yourself as quickly as possible. As a last resort, use the cutters to free yourself. Remember: If you can’t disentangle yourself in a few moments, it’s time to call a mayday, regardless of how much air is left in your bottle.

Captain Homer Robertson has been involved in the fire service since 1978, starting as a volunteer with the Granbury (Texas) Fire Department, of which he is a life member. He has served with the Fort Worth Fire Department since 1985 and is currently in charge of the fire equipment division, which includes the apparatus fleet.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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