Rapid Intervention Basics for Firefighters

By Jeff Schwering

In today's fire service, firefighters tend to lump things together in an effort to "get it all finished at once." We attempt to sprint first and learn to crawl later--the opposite of the common sense that we were taught as children. We need to tap back into this commonsense thinking in regard to rapid intervention teams (RIT).

Nearly 100 firefighters are killed in the line of duty every year; in 2009, there were 32,205 injuries on the fireground, according to the United States Fire Administration. Rapid intervention was not widely recognized until the 1990s, but there are times when even the rescuers need to be rescued. In this regard, attempting to do more with less, as many firefighters are attempting with today's diminished resources, is simply impossible.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the agency in the Department of Labor that enforces the Occupational Health Act of 1970. This act ensures that everyone has a safe and healthy working environment. OSHA has the power to inspect and cite fire departments for lack of compliance to OSHA 29CFR 1910.134, commonly referred to as the "two-in/two-out" rule. To send two members into a fire or other hazardous environment, these members must be in full personal protective equipment (PPE) and equipped with breathing apparatus and radio communication, and the backup team must be equally equipped outside of the hazard zone. Big Brother is watching and waiting, yet most companies across the United States--career, combination, or volunteer--do not have the staffing required to initiate an aggressive interior attack on a dwelling fire and provide for the rescue of their own. However, we still must manage this, in most cases.

What is the need for the basics with our RIT?  Step back, take a breath, and consider the who, what, when, where, why, and how of rapid intervention. If no RIT is present or the assigned company is not familiar with the assignment, the outcome will surely be a poor one. Who is the RIT (or is it FAST, RIC, RAT, FAT? Different parts of the country call the same job a different name.) I once had a firefighter tell me, "We can't train on this, Cap; I don't understand what RIC is."

Who is your RIT? Is RIT an engine company, a truck company, a rescue company, a mutual-aid company, or an automatic-aid company? When does the RIT company arrive, or is it part of the initial assignment? What is the staffing of that assigned company? Are they trained and designated to the RIT only? I'm not attempting to reinvent the wheel or take away from firefighters teaching advanced techniques, but slow it down a bit. For every question, each member responding to a working incident should have an idea or the answer in his head and understand its meaning in regard to his company. In some parts of the country, firefighters have a trained and designated RIT, although, just by looking at the crews, it would be hard for even the saltiest veteran to tell the difference between the designated RIT and the nondesignated crews, without prior knowledge.

To whom does your RIT report? It's a simple enough question. Command is the correct answer. In terms of equipment, the key word here is rapid! We cannot overload our RIT members. (Common sense tells us that three members is not enough for a RIT, so call for help early and often.

What is a rapid intervention team? A RIT is a group of at least two firefighters, fully equipped, and ready to react instantly to a fellow firefighter or firefighters in need of assistance. RIT needs to be put in place on all working fires and any incident that could potentially be an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere: technical rescues, water rescues, hazardous material incidents, live burns, and so on. Skills are required for a RIT assignment. Firefighters must be familiar with all aspects of the assignment, and they need to be able to function as a team. With that said, how many firefighters have a real grasp on what a member assigned to RIT does? Can you function as a team? You can normally pick out a RIT on the fire scene--the group of firefighters standing in the front yard with the disgusted look on their faces, talking about fantasy football, a side job, when vacation starts, and so on, completely not interested in the fact they have the most important job on that fireground. This group will attempt to function as a team, but too little realistic training will pose problems for all involved.

RIT standards can be referenced from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program; NFPA 1407, Standard for Training Fire Service Rapid Intervention Crews; and NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System. All of these standards, as many are quick to point out, say the same thing: RIT is a tool for our safety, it provides a dedicated team to rescue our own, and it allows a proactive, common-sense thinking incident commander to complete other tasks at an incident. Otherwise, the "team" will stand in front of the structure or incident and complain about the task they were assigned.

What are the basic skills necessary for a RIT?  Knowledge of building construction, fire spread and fire behavior; the ability to read? smoke, and listening, to name a few. RIT should be listening for a Mayday being transmitted, emergency traffic, a frantic garbled radio traffic, and so on. A proactive RIT needs to know the fastest way to the member in trouble. Remember, turnout gear lasts only seconds in flashover conditions.

RIT needs to understand the basics of air management. No more waiting for our low-air alarms. RIT needs to investigate sounding low-air alarms to ensure all members are accounted for.

When is RIT put in place? RIT needs to be put in place as early as possible on all working incidents. Add companies to the initial first alarm so that the resources will be responding. RIT in many areas can be made up of the third- or fourth-arriving company or both companies combined if staffing in an issue. This needs to be worked out before the structure catches fire or the trench collapses.

RIT is used nationwide as the ultimate in firefighter safety procedures. RIT provides for the rescue of lost, trapped, or injured members. RIT allows the incident commander to have outside tasks completed while the RIT is in a standby mode. Although the above seems easy enough, look at your next incident and evaluate how RIT is to be implemented. I am not placing blame or pointing fingers, I am just trying to lead the fire service down the path of common-sense thinking. Firefighters are apt to throw common sense to the wind when we see fire or when the tones go off.

Where will we stage RIT at incidents? Typically, RIT will stage near the command post or a primary point of entry to the structure. On unusual incidents, such as one in a high-rise, the RIT shall stage on the floor below the fire floor. A large commercial structure will have the need for multiple RIT at multiple means of egress, on multiple sides of the structure.

Why are RIT needed? I'll answer that with a name, and allow me to briefly explain my reason. The name is Ryan Hummert, a 22-year-old young man who was living his dream of being a firefighter. I met Ryan briefly one week before July 21, 2008, when he was murdered by an individual that targeted firefighters and police officers who responded to an intentionally set pickup truck fire that fateful morning.

I was on duty two towns over, listening to the radio traffic, knowing only that a member had been killed but not who it was. Ryan, whose first fire, that pickup truck, was his last. Ryan never had an opportunity for a RIT to save him. Ryan did, however, have brothers stay with him and never leave him, just as we will never forget the sacrifice of this one young man.

The "why" is very simple. Firefighting is not a game, a pastime, a side job, a pay check, or days off; it is a deadly serious profession, not to be taken lightly. "Why this, Cap? Why that?" This is heard in fire stations across the country every day. Why RIT? The NFPA standards say so, we are in an ever-changing environment, buildings have a mind of their own, and our workplace is constantly changing, Murphy's Law is at work on the fireground, but above all else--it's the right thing to do!

There are numerous similar factors in firefighter injuries and line-of-duty deaths, such as the following:

  • Firefighters getting lost or separated
  • Freelancing
  • Lack of familiarity with self-rescue techniques
  • Malfunctioning equipment
  • Lack of resources
  • Inexperienced officers
  • Lack of personnel
  • Newer construction/hotter fires
  • Lack of a RIT

Why do we need personal skills to be a part of RIT, and what are they? The personal skills a firefighter must possess for RIT work include the following:

  • Size-up ability
  • Knowledge of building construction, fire spread, and behavior
  • Communication ability
  • Ability to use a variety of different tools
  • Ability to act quickly under poor and deteriorating conditions
  • And above all a proactive, positive, common-sense attitude relative to the RIT assignment.

Why team skills required for RIT, and what are are they? RIT companies must be familiar with all aspects of the assignment; the fireground is not the place to learn your trade. Start all gas-powered tools in advance of a rapid deployment to ensure they are functioning properly, identify key tasks and positions ahead of time, and be able to function flawlessly as a team.

Finally, how do we improve our current RIT assignment? We must first look at RIT size-up skills that are needed and often overlooked: Understanding building dimension and construction type; performing a 360-degree walk around the structure; and placement of means of egress; security bars on doors and windows that need to be removed to soften the building and to protect the members inside. Pay close attention as a RIT and RIT officer to the type of incident you are working. On an offensive incident, consider the possibility of lost or trapped members, collapse, flashover, or backdraft. Defensive incidents may pose only a collapse risk, but over the course of the incident, the structure can show deteriorating conditions that need to be addressed by the RIT team and the incident commander (IC). The officer of the RIT company or companies needs to be able to work hand-in-hand with the IC throughout the incident to ensure firefighter safety.

**

This article is merely a reminder of the many elements for which the RIT is responsible and a call for a return to the basics. Sometimes, we forget our basics and common sense when we turn the corner and see fire. Our profession is not rocket science, but it is about education and common-sense thinking. From chief down to probie, every member is responsible for RIT basics to be effective and successful. We are our brothers' keepers! Take care of your company and your crew and be the best you can be.

Jeff Schwering is a captain in his 21st year of service with Crestwood Fire Department in Saint Louis County, Missouri, and has more than 30 years of experience in the fire service. He served as a paramedic and a firefighter/paramedic with the Shrewsbury (MO) Fire Department. Jeff has an associate degree in fire science from Jefferson College and is a Missouri state fire investigator.

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