Some people say a person can go about a week without food. Those same people say we can go without water for several days. But how long can you go without breathing?” - ?
There's an old saying "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth". You're working your butt off at a commercial job, there's a lot at stake, people are trapped, it's hot and smokey, all this training is about to define you in this moment of time ... then you’re thrown off your plan. Your plan just got "punched in the mouth" and you've found yourself cut off and disoriented. Just a second ago everything was rockin, now you recognize you are in trouble. If that wasn't enough your low air alarm activates ...
- Do you have a plan?
- If you have a plan did you practice your plan under realistic conditions?
- Have you practiced under sadistic conditions?
- Have you trained this way until your responses are a controlled reactive skill set?
As a young recruit in the fire academy, I was taught how to breathe from my air-pack (the old MSA with the corrugated tube) in a variety of ways to prepare me for mask and/or regulator failure. I was also taught "Skip Breathing" which I never mastered. The importance of learning breathing exercises never occurred to me, thinking it was stupid because (insert sarcastic tone) I already knew how to breathe ... until I got "punched in the mouth".
Many years later the topic of learning how to breathe “properly” resurfaced out of necessity, and helped me to overcome my own problems. Repackaging some old school techniques and delivering them in a functional manner has opened the door to teaching these breathing techniques in performance, and mental health arenas.
During performance training I have seen low air times typically last 6-13 minutes on approximately 1000psi, extended with breathing technique anywhere from 30-80 minutes depending on technique development and training. In the mental health arena (PTS, TBI, etc) I have witnessed breath work ease anxiety, decrease hyper vigilance, improve calmness, clarity, and add greater focus.
There are many breathing techniques that are effective and directly applicable to specific scenarios. The fire services “unicorn” is to find the one thing that will work for everyone. Spoiler alert, it does not exist. Firefighters are as different as the fires we respond to. Circumstance dictates response, not popular opinion, and preference should be based on results not “unicorns”.
The breathing techniques ...
- Straw breathing is a technique used to develop slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing.
- Hook breathing was developed for fighter pilots, or anyone facing blackout possibilities from the forces of gravitational pull.
- Box breathing (aka square breathing) is a breathing technique that requires focusing the mind utilizing imagery/visualization.
- Diaphragmatic breathing (aka: belly or tactical breathing) improves tidal volume capacity, by focusing on the use of the diaphragm when breathing.
- The Riley Rescue Breathing technique (aka: Hum technique) extends exhalation allowing for greater gas exchange in the lungs and the simultaneous humming is soothing to the mind.
- Triangle breathing is a technique using the sense of feeling rather than visualization by increasing title volume using the diaphragm, and incorporating holding the breath and extended exhalation to prolong the gas exchange in the lungs while having a calming and restorative effect to the mind. The hold and hum alerts the mind a reset is coming.
Options are important, because results will vary from individual to individual based on how comfortable they are using a certain technique. Not everyone is comfortable doing the same thing. There are many stimuli that influence preference, which is why you should find the one that works for you and master it.
The Reset ...
The benefit of developing a breathing technique is it will help you succeed in tough situations. Breathing creates homeostatic effects that allow for rational thought to dominate your critical thinking rather than have panic override critical thinking.
Fireman can further increase their profile of survivability by combining their breathing with the "wheel technique" (controlling the valve on your air bottle). This presents another option to self-rescue during a Mayday situation (trapped, lost, disoriented, low on air) by taking the air for the pneumatic alarm and using it for breathing to improve our rescue profile. Given the average RIT contact times shown in multiple studies breathing techniques alone can be implemented in several scenarios where contact time is delayed or hindered vastly improving survivability. By contrast extending air is shortened when working, struggling, or allowing anxiety to run it’s course.
(wheel technique, circa 2019, photo: by rj)
To PASS or not to PASS ...
An argument can be made that constant PASS activation in a mayday or urgent situation, vs. monitoring the radio and intermittent use of the PASS, can be detrimental. The constant alert of a PASS (by the victim in this circumstance) will add to the victims stress by overloading the senses. The stress from the PASS can cause an increase in anxiety, because it is an auditory irritant. This will effect air consumption by increased heart rate, and increased heart rate increases respiratory rate which can decrease profile survivability. Psychologically intermittent use of the PASS and utilizing the radio properly allows for “control”, and in an emergency situation control can be empowering. Empowerment creates mental and physiological calmness by focusing the mind on what it can do to survive rather than focusing how dire the situation is. The intermittent use of the PASS also allows the firefighter to monitor radio traffic, possibly alerting him to the location of RIT, and hear the RIT, or companies working nearby which would allow for corrective directions given by the trapped firefighter to the IC if possible.
Some supportive information about having an extensive plan is that the brain while only weighing 2% of the bodies weight can use 20% of the bodies energy at idle. Under duress a poorly trained mind will exhaust the bodies energy supply quicker than a well-trained mind. If you have not prepared the mind for where the body may have to go you have not fully prepared for success.
These tasks are representative of the mental toughness and the acuity of resilience.
Ric Jorge, retired fireman from Palm Beach County Florida. He is a co-author of the book on resilience for the fire service “Developing Firefighter Resiliency”, he is also the CEO of Tactical Resiliency Training LLC. Ric and his wife split time residing between N. Georgia and S. Florida. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org