Engine Company 3 eased up to the curb in front of the large, single-family home just before noon on the spring morning. The call had been dispatched as an automatic alarm with a response of two engines, one ladder company, and a battalion chief. As the firefighters stepped off the rig, it was apparent that there was a fire in the dwelling, but the hints of smoke showing around the eaves provided little information to pinpoint the location or extent of the fire.

The lieutenant transmitted a radio report requesting the balance of the first-alarm assignment as he began a 360° size-up. Upon completion of his size-up, the lieutenant gave a brief initial report stating the conditions from the exterior and specifying Engine 3’s initial actions. Simultaneously, Engine 2, the second-due engine, was in the process of laying a supply line to Engine 3 and Ladder 1 was preparing to force entry and begin a primary search.

The engine officer and nozzle firefighter from Engine 3 stretched to the door as the officer and a firefighter from Ladder 1 make quick work of forcible entry duties. The four made their way into the house to begin searching for the fire and to initiate the primary search for occupants. As they advanced, the ladder company officer noted to the group that while there was a considerable smoke condition there was no distinct direction of a heat source. he engine officer had called for water, and it now coursed through their handline as the firefighters attempted to orient themselves to their surroundings and the potential location of the fire.

The group crawled into a very large area that they assumed was an open living room. As soon as they crawled from the hard surface of the main foyer’s tile floor to the softer living room carpet, each firefighter began to react to a dramatic change in temperature on their knees and legs. The members of the ladder company, now slightly ahead of the engine firefighters, felt the heat most intensely. As they began to withdraw, the floor beneath them suddenly gave way. The pair tumbled down through the newly created gap in the floor.

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The engine officer heard the commotion and, realizing what had happened, began to transmit a Mayday for the endangered members. As the message was being transmitted, the battalion chief was in the process of completing his 360° survey size-up. He had noticed a faint glow in a cellar window and was about to inform the interior units when the Mayday came through.

The elapsed time from the arrival of Engine 3 to the transmission of the Mayday was only five minutes. The second-due engine had just finished laying a supply line. The battalion chief, having just noticed the glow in the basement window not evident during the engine officer’s size-up, had been about to warn the interior companies.  Additional resources, including an engine and truck for rapid intervention, were dispatched immediately upon transmission of the working fire, but their arrival was still almost 10 minutes away.

As the incident commander (IC), the battalion chief knew quick, decisive action with available resources would be the key to saving the lives of the two members of Ladder 1. He could not afford to wait for dedicated rapid intervention team (RIT) resources to arrive and deploy. Fortunately, this fire department had identified the possibility of an immediate Mayday transmitted by initial arriving-units, and their preparation would now be tested.

After the initial Mayday message from Engine 3, the officer of Ladder 1 transmitted a clarification. The two members were slightly injured but capable of assisting in their own recue. There was a fire in the basement gaining headway and the trapped members were unsure of the location of the basement stairs. Fortunately, since the Mayday occurred at the outset of the firefight, the endangered members still had the majority of their air supply.

The IC quickly assessed his options. He immediately struck an additional alarm to be sure resource needs would be addressed. The initial Mayday and follow-up communication gave him a fairly concise report of conditions and needs. The actions he would begin with the limited personnel available would address the most pressing need at the moment. He ordered members of Engine 3, who had withdrawn to the edge of the adjacent room, to push their charged hoseline into the gap in the floor where the members fell through. The trapped firefighters were alerted to this action and were able to take control of the line. Although this was not a perfect scenario, it provided some ability for the trapped members to protect themselves from any advancing fire.

With water supply duties complete, the members of Engine Company 2 automatically turned their efforts to stretching a backup line. The IC ordered this line stretched to the basement via the interior stairs. This action was undertaken to support the efforts of the trapped members as necessary and to provide orientation to the path of egress.

When the Engine 2 firefighters descended to the bottom of the basement stairs, they were able to provide the needed orientation to the Ladder 1 members by calling out and banging their hand tools on the floor. The two groups of firefighters were able to make contact at the foot of the basement stairs and all were able to return to safety. The firefighters from the ladder company were treated by EMS and were transported to the hospital for further evaluation. Their injuries proved to be relatively minor, requiring some time off for recuperation.

 This scenario had a successful conclusion for several reasons. Critical elements established somewhat favorable terms, including the fact that only two of the four firefighters tumbled into the basement, they were able to assist in their own rescue and the fire was not immediately under the point of structural failure. The other elements were all leveraged through the orders and actions of the IC and the other initial units on the scene.

The Initial RIT Response  

Not to be confused with the RIT resources dispatched upon confirmation of the working fire, the initial RIT response was comprised of rapid actions involving units already deployed at the incident. To be effective, this operation required that the fire department identify the fact that the need for rapid intervention may occur almost immediately upon arrival of the initial units. Once this fact is established, the organization must train to create units and commanders that are nimble in their ability to respond to early Maydays that require a deviation from normal operations.

The IC quickly sized up the needs of the endangered firefighters based on the conditions reported by Engine 3 and the trapped members of Ladder 1. Since the firefight was in its earliest stage, the duration of air supply was reasonably secure for a rapid rescue effort. Reports as to the condition of the firefighters and the location and extent of the fire had been received. The IC knew that he needed to provide protection from the fire and orientation to a means of egress as well as assistance for the firefighters in distress. He knew that if he provided this help in a timely manner, he was most likely to achieve a successful rescue. Waiting for the assigned RIT resources still en route was not a viable option.

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Once the rescue plan was ordered, its success rested on the ability of each company to employ the necessary tactics to achieve the goal. Engine 3 needed to assess the safety of their position relative to their ability to push the hoseline into the void created by the partial collapse. If this maneuver could not be accomplished, the position and operation of Engine 2’s hoseline would become even more critical. The actions of Engine 2 were key to the success of the rapid rescue. Based on standard procedure after completing the water supply function, Engine 2’s next task was to stretch a backup hoseline that followed the path of the first line. They were ordered to change “on the fly” and relocate their line to the basement via the interior stairs. This operation may have required a skillful redeployment of the hoseline. The IC also relied heavily on the discretion of the officer of Engine 2 in reading conditions while descending into the basement. The members were then required to maintain their protection of the stairs while they provided orientation to the firefighters of Ladder 1.

Lessons Reinforced

1. Not all elements of potential danger are visible, even after a 360° size-up. The fireground is a dynamic environment. Even the most thorough exterior size-up cannot determine all factors. Conditions change rapidly but situational awareness based on size-up factors coupled with experience-based decisions and sound operating policies are still the most effective tools for a risk/benefit analysis.

2. Catastrophic events may happen early in the incident. Fire is not a fair opponent. ICs must recognize the fact that a Mayday may be transmitted almost immediately after the arrival of the first units. The ability to redeploy resources and rapidly change the focus of an incident must not create chaos on the fireground. An IC must be able efficiently shuffle assignments for companies on the scene and those still en route.

3. The importance of situational reports and needs assessment criteria should be understood by all.  Every member of the fire department should be proficient in transmitting a Mayday message for themselves or members of any unit as required. Whether the agency uses LUNAR (location, unit, name, air supply, resources needed) or another method, the format should be practiced regularly. When providing situational reports, the RIT resources or endangered firefighter(s) should use the LCAN format, providing location, conditions, actions, and needs, as appropriate for the situation.

4. The elements of the Mayday must be prioritized and addressed. Based on the information in the Mayday message and subsequent situational reports, priorities for the rescue operation should be scaled based on necessity and availability of resources during the initial response phase. The need for additional air supply and a hoseline to protect endangered firefighters are the paramount concerns for the initial RIT response. The next priority involves the method of rescue for the endangered member(s). During operations, using initial RIT resources the rescue will most likely be limited to providing orientation to egress, limited physical assistance, or providing additional air supply or a hoseline to hold the fire while awaiting additional support.

5. All companies must be RIT capable. Some jurisdictions assign RIT duties to ladder companies, heavy rescues, or other specialized units. While these units often have the expertise and array of tools to perform many RIT functions, firefighters in every unit must be trained and proficient in operating in the RIT mode. Every company should be RIT capable within the scope of their equipment. Each member should practice methods of firefighter rescue using ladders and hose as well as simple rope or webbing systems. With the engine company serving as the most basic and abundant unit on the fireground, firefighters assigned to an engine are those most likely to comprise an ad hoc initial RIT resource.

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The establishment of a dedicated RIT resource during incident operations is a mandate of virtually every fire department. However, each member operating at an incident must understand the reflex time involved in the acquiring this asset. Understanding that a Mayday may be transmitted immediately after arrival and having the knowledge and training to leverage on-scene resources is the best hope for a positive outcome.    

David DeStefano

David DeStefano is a battalion chief with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he has served for 29 years. He is a shift commander in the operations division. He was previously chief of training and safety and has also served as a captain, lieutenant, and firefighter in Ladder Co. 1 as well as a lieutenant in Engine Co. 3. DeStefano is an instructor/coordinator with the Rhode Island Fire Academy and lectures on fire service topics throughout Southern New England. He was a presenter at FDIC International 2017 and 2018.    

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