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Firemen, you're so predictable, but now that I have your attention …What if you were trapped/lost/disoriented in an acrid, smoky environment and simultaneously your vibra alert activated to signal you only had a few minutes of air left, what would you do? Do you have a plan? Have you practiced your plan under realistic conditions? I pray you have because victories do not come by accident, they are earned.

I started teaching breathing techniques to firefighters who struggle with PTSD several years ago. This has lead to discovering some new ways to repackage some old school techniques and redeliver them in a way that revolves around resiliency techniques and how they benefit firefighters in extreme situations. Over the past couple of years I have incorporated these techniques with RIT/Mayday drills achieving startling success. These are old drills, and the breathing is not new but it’s become a lost art in the fire service. There may be a few of you hero’s who know this stuff, so this is addressed to those of you who do not and wish to learn ways of improving your profile of survivability.

Back in the day, when I was in the fire academy, I was taught a couple of techniques. One was manipulating the wheel of my air bottle to increase the life of my bottle (extending my air supply). The other was a breathing technique called skip breathing. I found I was not getting very good results with the skip breathing, the extension of my air supply often was less then if I just breathed normally. Because I was achieving bad results I got away from the technique I was taught in the fire academy, and as a rookie I never questioned guys who often referred back to skip breathing as a way to conserve air. Over the years “Skip Breathing” has been scientifically shown to decrease rather than extending your air supply, it will cause you to use more air than normal breathing would. I will not get into the science behind it but I will direct you to a great book called “The Rule of Air Management” (ROAM) by the Seattle 4 that addresses some of the effective breathing techniques discussed in this article.

There are several methods of breathing that can be packaged and taught differently. I teach 3 techniques that I have found to be most effective, box breathing (aka square breathing), belly breathing (aka diaphragmatic or tactical breathing), and the Riley Rescue Breathing technique (aka the Hum technique). I teach 3 techniques because firefighting is all about options. Contrary to popular belief there is no one thing that will work for everyone, it’s the fire services “unicorn”, it just 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”. Options are important to have because results will vary from individual to individual based on choice of preference.

Each of these breathing techniques have been shown to have homeostasis effects and positive results when done properly and practiced over long periods of time. The value of breathing techniques is one of the steps taken towards keeping internal conditions stable and relatively constant (heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, cognition, small motor function to name a few). In a nutshell this achievement is recognized as resiliency, but breathing is only one aspect of the development of resiliency.

Using these breathing techniques I have successfully taught fireman in 4 different states how to increase their profile of survivability by combining the breathing with the old drill of manipulating the wheel of the air pack with pretty dam good results.

Prior to going live at fire conferences the information had to be developed accurately. In order to get results that could accurately be compared to each other it would require a relatively consistent platform from which to do the test. My disclaimer to all you big brain people is that these results are verified by experience, observable drilling combined with consulting many medical professionals (a small army of doctors and PhD’s).

It was decided to use treadmills to test the firefighters (subjects). Each airpak begins the test at roughly 1500 psi. The reason for beginning the test at 1500 psi is because it is unnecessary to have the subject breath down a full bottle just to get them breathing hard. This can easily be accomplished starting at 1500 psi. The purpose of this drill is to show a time differential when combining our techniques vs. no technique. I am certain the percentages will transfer to a full bottle just as accurately.

The treadmill was elevated to 3.0 with the speed consistently at 3.7. The drill is timed from the moment the firefighter gets on air. During drill # 1 the firefighter is to continue until vibra-alert (we use Scott paks) is activated, when this occurs the firefighters treadmill is slowed to 2.5 (to mimic self rescue) until air is completely out. The clock stops when the firefighter disconnects from air.

Drill # 2 is exactly as drill #1 except the firefighters are taught the breathing technique of their choice. During the drill when the firefighter gets to vibra-alert they step off the treadmill and call a mayday. The firefighter will shelter in place (safe refuge) and find a comfortable position, they are to take their pak off and turn it upside down in front of them so they can manipulate the wheel and the pass alarm.

All the while they are using the breathing techniques to “catch” their breath. Once breathing is restored to an almost normal point the manipulation of the air bottle begins by the timing and turning of the wheel.

On inhalation the wheel of the bottle is slowly closed as you gain a complete full breath. If done correctly the vibra-alert will stop as the wheel shuts the bottle off. This means you will have successfully used all the air in the lines, not leaving any residual for the vibra-alert. During the exhale portion of the respiratory cycle, as you near the end of your respiration begin to crack the bottle open by slowly turning the wheel so as to not activate the vibra-alert as you begin the inspiratory cycle of your respiration. It will take practice to find the “sweet spot” and be able to master this drill without activating the vibra-alert. It will also take practice to develop the discipline necessary to master the breathing technique of your choosing.

The number of subjects I tested was 75. Here are some averages we consistently came up with doing the drills described above.

Vibra-alert only: These times reflect how long the air in the cylinder will last with no breathing just vibra alert running unimpeded.

71 minutes to 110 minutes

The reason for the big disparity is the airpaks themselves. NFPA allows for up to 200 psi difference in either direction of the recommended 1150 psi mark, so getting a consistent number is impossible, but getting a range is very doable.

Time begins when vibra-alert stops, and time stops when the cylinder is out of air (ooa). This was evaluated while subject was breathing during modest exertion (walking on treadmill):

1 minute 28 seconds to 3 minutes 41 seconds

The results between Drill #1 and Drill #2 are impressive. These are the averages of the results we documented.

Drill #1

6 minutes 20 seconds to 12 minutes 10 seconds

Drill #2

20 minutes 5 seconds to 61 minutes 44 seconds

These are the number ranges the first time doing the drill. Obviously after doing it once you have greater understanding of how to do it your numbers will improve. The following numbers were consistently reached by many of the subjects.

42 minutes 58 second to 52 minutes 10 seconds

Some people reading this may not use Scott Paks, but I have found this technique works even if your pak has a whistle, or a bell. Admittedly I have only tried it on those paks a few times to give that opinion, I can not show consistent numbers with them.


Combining these two techniques creates some eye opening results. Offering another option to self-rescue during a Mayday situation (trapped, lost, disoriented, low on air) it also improves a rescue profile given the average RIT contact times shown in multiple studies. The breathing techniques alone can be implemented in several scenarios where contact time is delayed or hindered due to debris, but extending air is compromised when working, struggling, or allowing anxiety to run it’s course. Make no mistake, the techniques being discussed in this article are in the context of sheltering in place vs running out of air trying to self rescue.

A case can be made regarding the constant activation of a PASS alarm. vs. intermittent use of the PASS. The constant alert of a PASS while in a Mayday situation will add to overloading the senses, which the firefighter in turn will respond physically with increased anxiety, heart rate, and respiratory rate, which demand more air. Simply put mindset impacts emotion, which alters biology, which will affect performance. These tasks are all representative of the mental toughness and acuity of resiliency. Mastery doesn’t just happen, it’s developed. Go train, train diligently, train effectively, and train as if lives hang in the balance.

Ric Jorge is a 23 year career firefighter with Palm Beach County. As a national and state certified instructor over the last 14 years he teaches for his department (PBCFR has 50 firehouses covering 746,000 citizens). Ric's forte is in resiliency but he has delivered lectures and H.O.T. classes Nationally, and Internationally (Ecuador Fire Academy S.A.), as well as teaching at several well known fire conferences annually across the country: Indiana (FDIC), Fort Lauderdale Fire Expo, Fire Rescue East (Daytona), Orlando Fire Conference, Metro Atlanta Fire Conference, 50th State Fire Conference (Hawaii), Florida State Fire Academy, and Firehouse Expo (Baltimore), Great Florida Fire School, Texas Fire Educators Conference, Berks County Fire Symposium (Penn.), and Command Officer Boot Camp (Pensacola, Fl.). Ric is published in book chapters (Pennwell “FF 1 & 2 Training Book”, Dave Dodson & John Normans book “The Art of Reading Buildings”), and has also authored articles for publication in magazines (Fire Engineering and 1st Responder), newsletters (Fire Department Training Network), and on line blogs (The Back-step Firefighter). Ric Jorge can be contacted at and some of his work can be found on FaceBook under “Tactical Resiliency Training

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