Rapid Intervention vs. Technical Rescue: Knowing the Difference Can Save Your Life


Is it just me, or have we completely missed the boat on rapid intervention? Why do we treat rapid intervention crew (RIC, the National Incident Management System term for it) deployments as a technical rescue? Do we aggressively enter a hazmat scene or a technical rescue scenario as we do a structure fire? I hope not. These operations take time, are very technical, and most times must be reconnoitered and approached very methodically so no one involved is injured or killed. Normally, we have time in these situations to check, doublecheck, and even triplecheck our knots, our shores, our harnesses, our personal gear, and so forth. We have time to set up mechanical advantage systems; carefully place cribbing; and set up air lines, tripods, wind socks, computer databases, and every other gadget sold to us to do the job.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the technical aspects of the job and was a “rescue head” for many years. I still enjoy the rescue calls. However, at a Mayday, we do not have the luxury of sitting back and taking our time. We have to work with the cards that nature deals us. We work under the following constraints: the weight of the gear on our backs, how much heat/physical abuse the human body can endure and still survive, how much air we can carry for ourselves and the victim, and the structure’s durability. We have a very tight window of opportunity; at a Mayday, we cannot exceed those limits. If we do, our fellow firefighters will die—no ifs, ands, or buts.

What is the RIC all about? In my department, it is about saving the life of a firefighter. When it comes down to it, the only way to start to save that life is to get that member out of the building as quickly as humanly possible. I know people are reading this, saying, “The way to save them is to teach them not to get into that position in the first place.” I agree, but you know as well as I do that things happen, and when they do, we don’t stand outside and tell them over the radio, “I told you so. You were trained not to walk on spongy floors, but you didn’t recognize the spongy floor, and now you’re in trouble.” We don’t judge; we act. And we must act quickly if we are going to save a life.

Why has RIC become a technical rescue? If technical rescue takes time to set up and accomplish, then why do we use technical rescue techniques to rescue down firefighters?

In technical rescue, we work with our fine motor skills (e.g., tying knots, assembling communications and search equipment, assembling tools, and measuring and cutting lumber to specific dimensions). We have time to work through issues that have been given to us and those we create ourselves. You who have been involved in a confinedspace incident, rope rescue, hazmat spill, or other technical incident know that it takes time to set up and time to accomplish the objectives. In a Mayday, we don’t have that kind of time. We must act quickly, or one of our own will die.


In the fightorflight response, when our bodies and minds are under extreme stress, the body protects itself by drawing blood to its core and to the larger muscle groups. We lose the fine motor skills we need to tie knots, manipulate selfcontained breathing apparatus (SCBA) masks, operate gas meters, hook up rescue tools, and so on. The body dumps adrenaline into the system to speed everything up so that your body and senses can function at a higher level than normal. This boost of energy provides the power and speed our ancestors used for survival to escape from that sabertoothed tiger or bear or to fight off assaults from other tribes. That is what it is designed for, not to do complicated physical or mental tasks. It’s the way we are wired, and there is not much we can do about it. There are ways to curb this anxiety, but that’s another discussion.

Would you agree that the impending sudden death of a fellow firefighter is a stressful situation? This is someone you may have known for 20 years and worked side by side with, you’ve covered his back and he yours, he is your kid’s godfather and was a groomsman in your wedding. He’s been as close as a family member, sometimes even closer.

Now, you are in an environment with extreme noise, moderate to high heat, and limited visibility. A Mayday call goes out; your fellow firefighter has fallen through the floor of the structure and is in the basement. You listen to the radio as that member tries to tell command who he is, where he is, and what has happened to him. The firefighter sounds panicked, hurt, and scared. A lowair alarm is ringing when the microphone is keyed. You know in your heart that this firefighter is in trouble, real trouble, and if help isn’t there quickly, this could be his final alarm.

You and your crew are assigned to find your friend and get him out. After several minutes of searching, you hear a PASS alarm and it leads you to the fallen firefighter. As you approach him, you see that he is unconscious, almost out of air, severely burned, and entrapped. You now realize that what you do in the next few minutes will determine whether he will live or die. So, what goes through your mind? “I have to do this, but can I do this? If I can’t, what will people think of me? He helped me all those times, I have to help him. He can’t die; he has a family! What will the rest of the department think of me if I can’t do this? What do I do next? I can’t remember! I can’t let him die, I can’t quit! How do I tie that damn knot? He’s going to die, and it’s my fault!”

Does this sound like a stressful situation? You bet it does. If you think your body and mind will behave the same way in this situation as they would at a morning training session out in the bays, you are mistaken. Once you are put in this type of scenario, it is unfair of anyone to ask you to do something your body is not equipped to do.


So, once again, why are we teaching RICs to do technical rescue skills in a firefighting scenario? Just because technical rescue is in our cache of knowledge doesn’t mean it is the right tool to pull out in these situations.

Over the past 10 years, numerous courses and techniques have been offered on how to rescue firefighters. At the same time, a wave of technical rescue techniques and related gadgets has swept over the fire service. Somehow, these two concepts have been united such that it is thought that technical rescue is the solution to the problem of trapped firefighters. These two situations occur in distinct environments that put different types of stresses on our people. Our personnel also have to function within different parameters. We need to keep firefighting and fire victim rescue techniques for the fire scene and save the confined space and highangle techniques for those types of incidents. These things are all tools for our toolbox, and we don’t have to empty the toolbox for every incident.

You don’t use a sledgehammer to fix a watch just because you have one and haven’t used it in awhile. Just because you know how to set up a mechanical advantage system doesn’t mean that it fits into every situation in which you have to move a human being. In some situations, time is against you, limiting your ability to use technical rescue techniques. Firefighting is very physical, and there are times when you just have to use brute force to get the job done. Sometimes you just have to go “old school.”


So what do we do in these situations? We have been taught all these technical rescue skills, so if we shouldn’t use them, what do we do? We do what we have trained to do from Day One. From the first day you stepped on the drill ground, and even before that, you have been training for this situation. In times of stress, your mind will revert to what is natural for you: using your large muscles to operate basic tools in a basic way. Even though we don’t like to admit it publicly, firefighters like to break stuff. We like to use big heavy pieces of metal to break stuff, move stuff, and make big holes where none existed before.

To do this, we use the big muscles of the body to use the tools with which we are most familiar. And, if we are using the big muscles for this, then maybe we can use this fightorflight response to our advantage. Remember, the goal is to get the firefighter out of the building as quickly as possible to increase survivability.

Let’s say you have to move a down firefighter through an area. You have to breach a wall to get him out, or maybe you are the one trapped and you need to selfrescue. In some drills that have been developed, we see firefighters stretching, contorting, and turning at odd angles to move themselves or someone else through a wall. You even see them taking off their SCBA to fit through a small space between the wall studs. I am sure you have seen this, done this, read about it, or seen someone do it on a video.

There’s my alternative solution: MAKE A BIGGER HOLE! I know it sounds crazy. Watch out for the common sense train coming through! Just make the hole bigger, then you won’t have to be Bongo the Rubber Boy to get yourself out of a jam. You also won’t have to remove your or the victim’s SCBA and risk pulling off a face piece in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere. That big piece of metal you carry (e.g., halligan, ax, sledgehammer) can make short work of drywall and wall studs. You can knock studs off the sill plate by hitting them to the side or by sitting down and kicking them to the side with your foot. Remember, this is a fightordie situation. Move it or lose it (photos 1, 2)!

(1) Photos by author.

If you need to remove a firefighter from the building quickly, use the nearest opening like a door or a window. If you don’t have an opening, make one. A chain saw can make a big hole in a wall. That tool in your hand will also punch through most types of residential construction. And when you make the hole, make it BIG. You can also cut down windowsills in the case of difficulty in lifting a firefighter up and out of the window (the Denver drill). Even a window that can be cut down to 10 or 12 inches from the floor will be easier to remove a firefighter from than one that is 42 inches.

In a secondfloor rescue, you can place the ladders at the floor level at the second floor, then cut the window down to that level. Rescuers can then slide the firefighter out through the opening directly onto the ladder and out of the building.

In entrapments, I don’t totally disagree with using air bags and portable hydraulic tools; just make sure any connections you have to make are done outside, and then bring the tools into the work site. A stokes basket works well as a sled to carry tools, and you can then use it to move the firefighter once extricated. Having said this, you can put a pry bar into service as a lever much more quickly than you can the more complicated rescue tools. Try using what you have at hand first until the other tools arrive at the site. If you can, use a pry bar (or anything else that can be turned into a lever) to lift the material. You may only need to move it a matter of inches to free the firefighter (photo 3).


As for cribbing the load, I don’t disagree with cribbing something when needed. However, I am not talking about building Tshores or rakers. This is not like the building shoring used for a longterm search of a building collapse; that takes too much time. In Mayday situations, it’s more like the firstarriving unit cribbing a vehicle at an extrication scene. It is down, dirty, and quick. We can quickly stabilize debris by using step chocks, wedges, and some 4 × 4s (photo 4) or use pieces of debris or furniture to stabilize the load for your lift. Just get the thing stabilized and start lifting. Remember, we are not building cabinets; we are just ensuring the load doesn’t shift to trap/injure rescuers or trap/injure the victim further. You aren’t trying to lift the object back into place but only enough to free the victim. And yes, crib as you go. By doing this, if the lever slips, you won’t lose any of the distance you’ve already gained in your lift or harm the victim by having the load come down on him. You don’t have to haul in cribbing from the outside to begin the extrication process. Use whatever you have at hand to start so that you can handle the situation quickly. Time is life.


A twoperson team can use a pry bar, a halligan bar, or a tool handle to move a firefighter quickly through an open space. Unbuckle the down firefighter’s SCBA waist strap, run it between his legs, then refasten it and tighten. Place the bar under the shoulder straps across the person’s back. A firefighter on each side can move the victim through an open space very quickly (photos 5-7).


Use the tools with which you are most familiar in a Mayday scenario. You are working under extreme conditions, both internally and externally. Use the physical attributes with which you have been blessed to help in this process. Put yourself in the trapped firefighter’s position: Do you want to wait for the technical rescue equipment to arrive and be set up, or do you want OUT, NOW? Do you want your SCBA removed from your back and risk it being knocked off? Is it fair to those trying to save you to expect them to exhibit fine motor skills and complete complex mental tasks when their very genetic makeup does not allow this? How will your fellow firefighters, your family, and your community react toward these people if they fail to save you? How will those rescuers feel because they failed to remember how to tie a handcuff knot or spent five minutes shoring a fiveton load that was lying on your chest and suffocating you? They tried to do what they were trained to do, but that didn’t get you out alive. Put yourself in those shoes, and then decide what tools and techniques you should use in a Mayday.

MICHAEL DOUGLAS is a captain with the West Chester (OH) Fire Department, supervising the Risk Management Bureau (Training and Safety). A safety officer for the Butler County Incident Management Team, he instructs on rescue, fire, and incident command topics. He is a 25year fire service veteran, served five years with the Cincinnati Fire Department’s heavy rescue/hazmat company and with the Ohio Task Force 1 urban search and rescue team (OH TF1), and was a squad leader for the Hamilton County Regional US&R Task Force.

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