By Vicki Sheppard
Firefighters from Palm Beach County recently tested their abilities in several scenarios in a 165-room hotel destined for demolition. Palm Beach County Fire Rescue in cooperation with Palm Beach Community College took the lead role on curriculum development. Due to asbestos ceiling materials, no live burns were allowed in the structure. The lead instructors surveyed the property and developed several training outlines and practical scenarios. One scenario covered RIT operations. In a two-week period, more than 300 firefighters from Riviera Beach, Palm Beach Shores, Palm Beach Gardens, Town of Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, and Palm Beach County joined together to train in one common location.
Rapid Intervention Team Operations
Each day during the four-hour firefighter training session, an average of 30 firefighters from seven area fire departments participated in the RIT operations. Instructors focused on street-smart tactics to allow firefighters to think outside the minimum standards box to gain the necessary skills to locate and remove lost or trapped firefighters more effectively from hostile atmospheres. They covered firefighter fatality statistics from the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and discussed a variety of reasons why rescue attempts fail. Instructors emphasized that rescues do not fail because of rescuers' lack of will or heroic efforts. Many times the failure is due to a tactical error, lack of communication, inadequate air management, lack of adequate training, or failure to have a backup plan.
Instructors then briefed the firefighters on the practical scenario: to rescue two firefighters. At the start of the "incident" all personnel were to work on one common radio frequency. Palm Beach County Fire Rescue dispatchers attended each training session to troubleshoot the necessary patch and facilitate the dispatch role. Two incident commanders (ICs) from different agencies assumed the role of Unified Command. Firefighters and command listened as they heard radio traffic from crews operating inside the structure describing deteriorating conditions resulting in a partial ceiling collapse, and ultimately a Mayday call for one or more firefighters. It was important to listen to the radio to understand who and how many were in trouble. After everyone heard the radio traffic, the practical session began.
Unified Command notified the RIT team to enter the building in search of the lost firefighter. The mission of the RIT team was simple: follow the 200' of charged 1 3/4" hoseline over the ceiling debris to the Mayday firefighters, package them, and extricate them while monitoring their air supply. The ceiling collapse debris used existing components of ceiling tiles, cable wire, telephone wire and air conditioning duct work. Black foam (the type used as filters for window mounted air conditioners) placed inside the SCBA masks simulated the reduced visibility environment. When the RIT team reached the nozzle, it discovered one manikin dressed in personal protective equipment with a sounding PASS device. The RIT checked the air supply of the lost firefighter, notified Command of their situation, and dragged the firefighter to safety. The second firefighter was just off the hoseline with an activated PASS device within 25' of the nozzle.
- Many firefighters did not adequately monitor their air supply and either became victims themselves or had to retreat without a successful rescue.
- There is nothing rapid about Rapid Intervention Teams.
- Neighboring agencies must first train together to become familiar with the various SCBA and PASS devices to make a successful rescue later.
- Use common communications on the training ground before the fireground. It took four days to resolve this issue of interoperability.
- Instructors must maintain a positive mentoring attitude when supervising numerous firefighters. Each agency may have different equipment and procedures that must be considered and reinforced.
Battalion Chief Vicki Sheppard is a 24-year veteran with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. As the Battalion Chief for the Training and Safety Division, she works with a team of 12 personnel to provide the necessary development and delivery of training to the department's 1,000 career firefighters each month. Sheppard is the President of the Training Officers of the Palm Beaches, member of the Fire Chiefs of the Palm Beaches and Florida Fire Chiefs Associations, and is a member of the Live Fire Curriculum Development Committee for the Florida Bureau of Fire Standards.