The Mask

The Commitment. Photo by S. Bender

There is something about that moment, when you don your mask and feel the suction and then the rush of air into your lungs. It is a moment of commitment.  You and the mask.  It marks that moment that you have committed yourself to whatever is beyond the threshold.  I don’t know that I’ve ever thought much about it before. But this picture brings that to mind.  Relying on the air pack to do what it was designed to do, every time.  How long you can work, how far you can go and whether you will get back out is influenced by many factors.  But the air pack is the primary one.

It hasn’t always been that way of course.  At one time, even when this writer was a probie, firefighters did not wear their mask through the entire incident or even put the mask on at all.   I can distinctly remember being told to “take off the mask, probie!  Save your air!”, as we went in to do overhaul.  It wasn’t that we needed to save our air, it isn’t yet in short supply.  But that was a way of  sayin’ “take that stupid mask off, and be a man about it”.  It was also viewed as a hindrance to doing a good job.  Being able to see, work and communicate was not a best-selling feature of any mask or face piece.  It has only been in recent years that the mask is functional for long periods of time, at least there is some improvement.

When I came into the job, there were still many brothers around that were from the really tough years, often referred to as the “war years”.  Fireman, historian and author, Don Whitney writes in his book “The Blackened Shield”, that these were the years of constant fire, really tough times.

Author of "The Blackened Shield", Don Whitney talks with firemen about the old days. Photo by author.

Primarily we’re talking about the 1960’s, 70’s and 8o’s.  Of the 1970’s he writes, “Arson swept across the country like a plague.  Sometimes the underlying cause of the flames was social unrest; other times it was basic economics”.

During those times, the firefighters across the country were facing manpower cutbacks, cultural change within the firehouse and a society that seemed bent on self-destruction.  Things were changing then, but as always, the fire service was slow to react.  These changes in economics and society to led to incredible workloads and dangers that Whitney says had been unimaginable to them a few years before.

Part of that change was the use of synthetics and petroleum that became prevalent in American manufacturing.  With natural fibers and products, the smoke and heat had been something the old smoke eaters or “leatherlungs” could deal with.  The amount of carbon monoxide could easily be fatal, but class A smoke was not as lethal as what is now being produced by the average house fire.  Over this writer’s career and even before in the mid-seventies and eighties, materials used began to change and the quantity of toxic fumes contained in the smoke has increased steadily over time.

Firefighters used to be able to crawl in low, under the smoke and minimize the effects at least long enough to get a knockdown.  The SCBA or Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, an ungainly, uncomfortable air pack and mask combination was usually left in pristine condition on the rig, tucked away in a suitcase.  My uncle, a 30 year Baltimore firefighter, has told me how special care was taken of the piece on board the rig, (although it was never used) and it had to be in mint condition for the lieutenant who expected as much.

Many departments used ancient technology for decades, handed down through the military.  These pieces were called the “All Service” unit or some were known as the MSA Chemox Oxygen Breathing Apparatus.

MSA Chemox Oxygen Breathing Apparatus. Photo from Google Search.

It consisted of a pack which mounted on the front of the user, with rubber lungs which contained oxygen “created” by a chemical reaction produced from a candle inside a can.  The contraption was heavy, unbelievably cumbersome and hard to draw a breath through.  Although the mask was updated, it still required a can change out fairly frequently and the can becomes piping hot inside the pack due to the chemical reaction.  Some thirty years ago, this writer has had the benefit of experiencing that horrible contraption and fighting a training fire with it during a shipboard fire exercise.  So use at fires was limited to times when the toxins were too much for leatherlungs.  The Scott SCBA’s came on the scene in the late 1960’s and due to the functional problems and ungainliness experienced with most new technology of that time period, they saw little use in many departments.  The damaging effects of the ever increasingly caustic smoke were going unnoticed or were blatantly ignored.  The old school continued to enter fires without air packs, crawling in low and “taking a feed”.

As a probie, I was taught in the academy that such an attitude and the ever present carbon monoxide in the smoke would kill us either during or after the fire.  I was taught that my lungs could liquefy in my sleep as had happened to some firefighters during that time period, succumbing to the effects long after the fire was out.  But that was at the academy and on the fire ground, particularly at a busy house, the attitude towards using your mask, especially during overhaul (when the levels of toxic CO are at their worst) was discouraged.

True, even in 1990, as I began on the job, the SCOTT masks and others used were still very hard to put on and very uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.  Headaches from the CO could be replaced headaches caused by the fit of the mask which more than once left me struggling to keep working, it hurt so bad.  But getting a tight seal was important.  Just putting the damn thing on practically scalped you as you dragged a Nomex net over your forehead and down the back of your skull.  But over the years the masks have improved, the packs are lighter, the bottles are lighter and it is easier to talk in the newer equipment. They still fog up, especially at sub-zero temperatures, but nothing like before.  Truth is, the air packs and masks have gotten much, much better even during my short career.  And we have become more dependent on them.

The SCBA can still be exhausting to wear, the mask still becomes difficult, but it is the difference between living and dying.  What used to be “a bad feed” has now become instantly deadly.  Unlike our predecessors, we cannot live in the smoke for more than a few minutes with the types of chemicals burning in these fires.  The superheated, toxic smoke can kill within a few lethal breaths.  So I guess that takes me back to the beginning of this diatribe.  When you “click in”, “Scott up”, or ”mask up”, you are making a commitment to deal with whatever is across the threshold before you.  It has been automatic for me for a long time.  Fit the regulator in, “click”, inhale.  Go in.  Commit.


  • jstwndrng says:

    This is a great post, Youngblood. I really felt I was learning something reading this and I was gripped the while. It’s strange to think of you — you of all people, whom I dragged around the living room floor in a cardboard box just because I could — as being old enough to not only give me a firefighting history lesson that includes great details but to illumine the combat of fires within the context of the increasing chemicalization of western life — at least with regard to the build environment — in the late twentieth century. Are you really old enough to have that kind of sweeping hindsight? Anyway, it really shows here that you know upon which side your bread is buttered. Well done. Keep this up and you’ll have a truly invaluable collection of essays that your fellow firefighters will benefit from for decades. As a civvie, I’d love to know what is a feed, and what does overhaul mean? You could make this much longer — season it with some specific stories of some guy’s lungs liquifying or times when the old masks muddled your communications, etc. — and send it to a trade pub (I assume there are firefighting trade mags out there). Thanks for an enjoyable read.

    • You’re welcome of course. I’m sorry for the delay in getting back to you. The ole’ PC was not so PC today. But how long is too long? I thought of adding those things but struggled with the topic as I don’t usually expound on things that technical. It all bubbled and rambled out while looking at that photograph, trying not to lose sight of why I began writing the post itself. A wandering essay. Just you wait, I’ve got a hum-dinger to post yet, but I need to clear it with the actual participants first as I am only on the fringe of the whole thing.
      Of note – Overhaul, the act of ripping the guts out of whatever was burning until you have quashed any attempt by the fire to rekindle. And a “feed” is a word from the smoke eater days, it meant to go into a fire and breathe it. If you “took a tough feed”, you were getting real sick from the Carbon Monoxide and other toxins. What most folks don’t understand is that firemen were always sick from a fire that produced any degree of serious firefighting. That is why the fires are known as “working fires” or “jobs”. In parlance, one would say, “42’s engine took a tough feed on that job saturday night”.

      Just so you are “in the know”.


  • jstwndrng says:

    Thanks for clarifying. I was picturing a “feed” as some kind of air-hose.

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