Are We Still Ready to Train After Tragedy?

By SANTIAGO LASA

On June 24, 1994, Boston Fire Department (BFD) Lieutenant Stephen Minehan was killed while searching for two missing firefighters. Before the incident, we at the BFD had asked Minehan and his crew to become our rapid intervention team (RIT); this was long before we had RIT or firefighter assistance and search team (FAST) companies. After that tragic loss, we took steps to try to prevent it from ever happening again. We issued personal alert safety system (PASS) devices to all members and radios to every fireground member; trained ladder and rescue companies in large-area searches; and, most importantly, purchased thermal imaging cameras (TICs) and trained members in TIC courses. We also created FAST companies that responded and were put in place at structural fires.

We took all these steps to ensure firefighter safety. That was 15 years ago. Along the way there have been many firefighter fatalities in the United States that have changed the way that we operate on the fireground.

Like many other firefighters, BFD firefighters attend various seminars such as FDIC, Worcester Safety Seminars, and the countless other training seminars throughout the country. One thing we noticed was that firefighter survival and RIT training were taking on a new light; we needed to change to meet 21st century firefighter safety standards. We started by talking with other departments, big and small, about how they trained for firefighter survival and rapid intervention. Our major questions were, “What was the initial training?” and “Was there any annual refresher training?” Answers varied anywhere from initial training only to initial training with 20 hours of annual refresher training.

After recommendations from other firefighters at these seminars, a few of us from the BFD attended Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department Lieutenant Jim McCormack’s program at the Fire Department Training Network (FDTN) in Indianapolis. McCormack and his crew did an incredible job teaching students to understand the difficulty involved in saving one of your own. Although nothing can recreate the pressures and emotions of rescuing a fellow firefighter, this course will get a firefighter as close to those experiences as possible. Another school that deserves mention is the North Carolina Breathing Equipment School, which boasts top-notch instructors and is physically demanding.

We then formulated a training plan that included our past experiences and experiences acquired at the FDTN. We presented this plan to the upper command staff; they agreed with the plan and gave us the go-ahead. We located an abandoned nursing home and had off-duty members come down to clean and prep the building. On July 19, 2007, our first companies arrived to start “RIT Training” (photo 1). Members participated in two physically and emotionally intense 10-hour days.

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1) Photos by William Noonan.

The first half of day one focused on firefighter survival. The first drill was on ladder bailouts (photos 2, 3). We taught members about the different heat layers and how to perform the bailout. They then had to perform a search, locate a window, and perform an emergency ladder bailout. The points stressed were learning to read conditions, knowing the means of egress, and that this maneuver should only be used as a last resort.

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2)
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The next drill was the “Minehan Drill,” or following a hoseline out (photo 4), named after the manner in which Minehan lost his life. We taught members how to read couplings and how this leads them to safety. We then blacked out their face masks and had them locate a charged line. We attempted to recreate fireground conditions such as climbing over construction debris and wading through the tangled wires (the “lines of spaghetti”) that firefighters encounter at structural fires.

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4)

Next, the breaching section taught members the When, How, and Whys of the dangers associated with breaching. At this station, members also performed low profile, reduced profiles, and complete removal of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

The most intense survival drill was the tangled wires prop. Members had to crawl through an eight-foot × 30-square-inch box laced with numerous strands of electrical wire. The good thing about this drill was that it led our members to recall different incidents in which they became snagged by either electrical, computer, or home entertainment system wires during operations. More importantly, it taught our members how to control their air while still trying to manage the entanglement obstacles. We also conducted an SCBA refresher course and discussed the parameters of declaring a Mayday through our fire communication division.

The second half of the day involved discussing and practicing methods of dragging a downed firefighter. We converted an SCBA harness into a rescue harness and taught members how to remove a downed firefighter who is wearing all his personal protective equipment and SCBA using a ground ladder. Each member played a victim as well as a rescuer. All victims were placed on a belay system to prevent any accidents.

The last part of the day involved RIT duties and responsibilities, RIT pack operations, and searching for and locating a downed firefighter. We extensively discussed each RIT position and the pros and cons of our RIT bag and taught and practiced RIT operation methods. The day ended with each team searching for, locating, and placing a downed firefighter wearing full SCBA using the RIT bag. We conducted this drill so each member could understand RIT responsibilities and duties as well as hone the skills they just acquired, albeit in a team concept.

Day two started with more team-oriented drills such as the Denver Drill (photo 5) and removing a firefighter using interior stairs. The remainder of the day was scenario based. District chiefs attended and ran the RIT sector, while the fire alarm operation division ran all communications aspects. We placed RIT companies with RIT command and transmitted a Mayday; the RIT sector then would formulate a plan based on this Mayday. Teams entered, searched, located, and packaged and removed all downed firefighters. The scenarios started with very basic searches and rescues, with each scenario getting progressively more intense. The teams encountered multiple Maydays, entangled firefighters, partial collapses, and missing members.

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After each scenario, we critiqued any problems and discussed the lessons learned. We tried to duplicate the fireground experience with everything except the heat. This training also exposed the physical conditioning of some of our members. Too often we heard, “I thought I was in better shape than this,” from members. We’re now starting to see more guys working out and taking care of themselves. Sometimes it takes a little adversity to remind us of the dangers of our job as well as the wellness and fitness levels that are needed to perform it. The training was an eye-opener for most of our members. Many firefighters commented that this training was the most difficult and intense of their career; it was also the best they had ever experienced.

Unfortunately, the site developers decided to demolish the building; a search was on for a new site. We located another nursing home, and again our members prepped a vacant building. After 15 months, we had trained 90 percent of BFD members.

We must continue to practice our skills back at the firehouse as well as improve our skills with more training under live-fire conditions, if possible. Rescuing one of our own may be one of the most dangerous and emotionally demanding tasks that we will ever experience during our firefighting career. It’s up to us now to make sure we don’t suffer another loss or go another 14 years before we continue training.

SANTIAGO LASA is a 33-year fire service veteran; he spent the past 25 years as a member of the Boston (MA) Fire Department and is a lieutenant in Rescue 1. Lasa is a certified fire instructor 1 and is in the Massachusetts Fire Academy Recruit Division.

 

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