Besides our protective firefighting/turnout/bunker gear, our SCBAs are probably our most important piece of protective equipment. There is no doubt that protecting our respiratory system is invaluable.

We have come a long way from the days when we were taught to "conserve" our air or be classified as a "smoke eater." These were no doubt poor decisions that came with the honor of being a firefighter. Nowadays, it is smart and prudent to don your SCBA and begin respiratory protection prior to getting out of the truck or before crossing the "threshold" of the hazardous environment/situation.

There have been circumstances when the call comes in as an undetermined "odor" or a "smell." Even though the occupants are functioning normally, getting to the source without "being on air" has resulted in unfortunate events for the firefighters. Off-gassing and/or hypersensitivity because of inhaling toxic fumes has damaged health and imperiled lives.

One of the best ways to get to know your department's SCBA is to take advantage of the certification course — usually from the manufacturer — that your department offers for your air program or air truck personnel. These are usually the firefighters who have been assigned to filling the air cylinders, replacing damaged masks, harnesses, parts, repairing masks, filling aerial device cylinders, PASS units, fit-testing, etc.

During the course/class you will learn about the different components, how to test the equipment, the limitations, proper cleaning, maintenance, etc. I was always a firm believer that when you know how something works from the inside out, you will know how to correct a problem or at least have some idea about what is going on and be able to adapt to the situation.

I am not condoning doing the repairs yourself at the station (unless your SOPs allow it). Leave that to your air personnel to do since they have the proper tools and facilities. Usually, air truck personnel will respond to any major event or alarm anyway and will be there if needed.

Drills are another great way to get to know your SCBA equipment. Other than the normal donning and doffing, practice "buddy breathing" in a lighted area and in the dark. Simulate rescuing a fellow firefighter in a harsh environment.

Know and be able to feel for the connectors with gloves on. Try doing this with hoses both under pressure and not to feel the difference. You may have to adapt your grip on the pressure hose to get it to connect in the buddy breathing connectors/couplings.

Also, practice getting an unconscious firefighter, who may have run out of air, out of a dangerous environment or situation. Get him back on air, then use pushing and pulling techniques like threading the SCBA harness straps through the legs and pulling with top part of the harness, or putting the downed firefighter's leg over your shoulder and pushing him in a forward crawl.

Try practicing some survival techniques. Say you were running low on air and could not get outside. You would need to conserve air to help buy time.

One drill we performed some of you may already know about it was to lie down on the ground and calm yourself down. Slow down your breathing and your pulse rate (somewhat like transitioning in to a meditative state). Turn off the air cylinder at the valve, then turn on your air by just slightly opening the valve, breathing in a small about of air, then closing the valve. Hold your breath, exhale, then repeat the process. You could at least double the amount of breathing time out of the 20-30-minute cylinder.

As always, in the competitive spirit of most firefighters, we would time the drill from the start of the first breath, until no more air was left in the SCBA, to see who could get the "most" time out of their cylinders. Even when the low air pressure whistle or alert would go off, we could still get another 10 or more minutes out of the cylinder.

Remember to practice reducing your profile by taking off one shoulder strap or taking off the harness completely, without going off air and keeping your mask on.

In conclusion, get to know every working component of your equipment. Get to know what it feels like so you can operate it in low-light or no-light situations. Feel for the direction of the straps and how to thread them back through the adjustment clasps. Knowing where the buddy breathing connectors are, etc.

It can save your life and the life of a comrade.