Common Policy for an Uncommon System

By SEAN STUMBAUGH

Many departments and training instructors concentrate on firefighter safety and survival. The push to reduce the 100 line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) suffered each year is catching on and spreading around the country. How is the push working? Based on 2008 casualty statistics (114), we have work to do. The purpose of this article is to encourage you and to show how Sacramento (CA) region fire departments are working together to develop a common rapid intervention company (RIC) deployment model and train to a common standard.

Sacramento County is a diverse area with rural farmland in the north and south and high-rise buildings in downtown Sacramento. We have all the fire problems imaginable—wildland, residential, big box commercial, and flowing water—and have paid and volunteer departments. Often, the county’s diversity interferes with harmonious relationships. Regardless of the politics, we are one big family and desire to have safe shifts and go home at the end of the day. Our staffing models, apparatus, uniforms, and grooming standards aren’t all the same, but we all put on our pants one leg at a time.

Shortly after promoting to battalion chief, I focused on RIC deployment and use: The area fire departments didn’t all handle this important function in the same manner. Our differing staffing models and resource deployments kept us from standardizing this issue. We took one giant step toward standardization when we all purchased the same self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), made possible by a federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant, which was designed to improve interoperability among first responders.

Having compatible equipment was our first step in RIC standardization. The region formed a committee to compare and select an SCBA on which everyone could agree. We assembled area department representatives who had already participated in leading-edge rapid intervention education.

This small group met to discuss our common goals. Once we decided that we had enough common ground to forge a common policy, Sacramento County operations chiefs gave us permission to pursue and implement a regional countywide policy.

The next step was to create goals and objectives. We employed management-by-objectives principles to create our plan, which was to have a countywide standardized system for RIC training, equipment, and deployment. Our enabling objectives were the following:

  • Research and adopt a standard rapid intervention training curriculum.
  • Establish and purchase minimum equipment for companies assigned to RIC.
  • Develop an instructor cadre made up of members from the participating agencies.
  • Have all instructors attend a “train-the-trainer” program.
  • Have agency instructors deliver the training to all members of their departments.
  • Deploy new equipment to strategic apparatus once training is complete.
  • Develop and approve county response and RIC assignment policies.
  • Complete training by including chief officers (battalion chief and higher) in a countywide “Commanding the Mayday” course.
  • Maintain the program through annual refresher training and program evaluation.

 

 

STANDARD TRAINING CURRICULUM

 

The RIC working group needed to decide on a standard curriculum on which to base instruction and operations. There were numerous options, but the committee quickly gravitated to a program from Lee & Associates Rescue Equipment Inc., a group of fire service professionals that operates an equipment supply and rescue education company dedicated to firefighter safety and survival. They teach rapid intervention under the “Nobody Gets Left Behind” (NGLB) program, which focuses on preventing firefighter disorientation and entrapment and what firefighters must do in an emergency. This program was selected for its positive and up-to-date content and its acceptance within the California fire service community.

 

MINIMUM EQUIPMENT

 

The working group then began work on a standard equipment list. Here is where the fireworks began. There were numerous differing opinions on who would carry what and how engines compared with trucks. Surprisingly, we agreed on an equipment cache in a relatively short time, a decision facilitated by the region, using the same SCBA (made possible by the UASI grant), and the compromise to list only the minimum equipment deployed from its engines and trucks. The group decided that if individual departments wanted to deploy additional equipment, it was a bonus. The minimum equipment that RIC companies deploy is listed in Tables 1 and 2.

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For rescue companies, the RIC group supervisor determines the cached equipment and assigns company officers based on the anticipated incident needs (building type, size, construction, etc.).

 

INSTRUCTOR CADRE

 

We chose a “train-the-trainer” format and had the NGLB team visit Sacramento to teach the class. Each participating agency sent its desired number of instructors and paid their tuition. Once the training was completed, each department’s personnel were to train their respective firefighters.

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(1) Each company in Sacramento County is equipped with a minimum level of RIC equipment. They carry blue tarps with the equipment outlined to remind crews of the equipment policy during dark hours. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

The topics taught in the program were the following:

  • Thermal imaging cameras for RIC.
  • Firefighter packaging and extrication.
  • Large-area search and search ropes.
  • Air awareness (some departments added this feature).

 

 

TRAINING DELIVERY

 

On completion of instructor development, each department delivered its own version of RIC training because of each company’s size and unique operations. The Cosumnes (CA) Fire Department (CFD) used its task force training schedule, which included 25 percent of the on-duty crews participating in drill sessions at one time. This meant that the CFD delivered four program classes over 48 training days, with a few makeup days to cover personnel on vacation. The CFD team was tired at the end of the process, but its reward was a well-delivered and well-accepted training program.

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(2) All personnel in the participating agencies received the same level of training. Incident commanders can give the RIC assignments and expect members to perform certain tasks. This truck company has deployed its equipment and is ready to assist a firefighter in trouble.

After delivering the training, crews no longer negatively viewed the RIC assignment. The importance of Mayday prevention and preparedness was not lost in the delivery; companies are now more involved and are enthusiastic about performing this fireground task.

 

EQUIPMENT DEPLOYMENT

 

The keys to this standardized areawide program were training and equipping a variety of companies to handle the RIC assignment. There was some discussion about the most efficient way to handle deployment. For example, we considered the San Mateo (CA) County model, which dispatches a fourth engine on a first-alarm assignment for a structure fire. The department programs its dispatch system to look for that fourth engine from a list of engines specifically equipped for RIC. Its system will bypass a closer unit to fill the specific need for the assignment. Although this keeps equipment costs down, the majority of the Sacramento agencies wanted more units to fill the RIC role. The minimum equipment list on all engines and trucks was our solution to this deployment dilemma.

Each engine and truck company from the participating agencies is now equipped with the minimum standard. Now, an incident commander (IC) can assign RIC to any company, and he will know what the company will do and what equipment it will use. Typically, per the policy, the third engine on the first alarm is assigned RIC. However, the IC can defer the assignment if another fireground assignment takes priority.

 

OSHA COMPLIANCE

 

Each participating agency has its unique way of complying with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) two-in/two-out rule. The Sacramento Fire Department has 4-0 staffing (a minimum of four persons on each company) to allow for staffing flexibility to provide OSHA compliance with minimum units on-scene. The remaining agencies have different staffing levels. Some four-person companies exist, but most have a staffing minimum of three, which makes complying with the two-in/two-out rule more difficult. The CFD has outfitted its six transport medic units with firefighting protective equipment and SCBA. These two-person companies, in which each member is a fully trained firefighter, arrive and pull a second attack line. It fulfills the two-in/two-out rule until it is relieved by a fully equipped RIC company, typically the third engine on the first alarm. Once you establish RIC, the two-out medic company can assist in fire attack or other fireground priorities.

This same concept works in Folsom (CA) and most areas of the Sac Metro (CA) Fire District, where, in some parts, a private ambulance company provides contractual service. These private ambulances are not staffed by firefighters, so ICs must make adjustments based on the dispatched resources. This adopted policy is our best attempt at common operations in an uncommon system.

 

RIC LEVELS MEET THE INCIDENT NEED

 

The commitment of resources to RIC is completely incident driven. The complexity of a building or its limited access and egress routes may necessitate the activation of large or multiple RICs. The committee was careful not to tie the IC’s hands by making large RIC assignments mandatory. The policy allows for assignment flexibility based on the IC’s evaluation of the incident. The policy does, however, give ICs the ability to expand the RIC function. Three RIC levels were established, and minimum requirements were included in the policy. This policy section includes the following:

  • Procedure. This represents the required RIC level. The IC shall decide how the department will provide the necessary resources. Companies may be assigned through units already on-scene, units in staging, or those requested through the Sacramento Regional Fire Emergency Communication Center.
  • Level I. RIC shall comprise one engine company (typically the third engine on the first-alarm assignment).
  • Level II. RIC shall comprise two companies: one engine company and one truck company, and one command unit for the RIC group supervisor.
  • Level III. RIC shall comprise three companies: one engine company, one truck company, and one rescue company, and one command unit for the RIC group supervisor.

 

Once an assignment expands to Level II, a RIC group supervisor is added. This chief officer assists the company officers with their duties and will command the rescue operation if a Mayday should occur.

 

WHAT DO RICs DO?

 

Now that the RIC assignments were confirmed, these RIC companies must be a proactive part of the emergency effort. To have these companies understand this new proactive stance, your policy must include evolutions and terminology that everyone understands. Once we adopted and developed the countywide RIC policy, each agency began training with it and tweaking it to its specifications; innovation is fine if it leads to safer and more effective operations. The point is that crews understand the critical role of this assignment. They need discipline and must stay true to the job’s functions. RIC members’ freelancing and doing fireground operations for which they are not assigned will lead to an uncoordinated attack and make the fireground less safe. However, RIC members doing simple tasks that enhance safety while they remain vigilant and available for a fireground emergency will lead all crews toward a more positive incident outcome.

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(3) Establish different RIC assignment levels based on incident need. Pictured is a Level II RIC assignment complete with a RIC rescue group supervisor. (Photo by Julie Rider.)

RICs should follow directions at the emergency scene in the absence of specific orders from the IC. Once assigned, company officers should know how to deploy their troops and equipment for this critical fireground support operation. The following paragraph is a quote from the Sacramento (CA) County RIC policy and deals with fireground tactical considerations:

Tactical considerations. “A member of the RIC should be assigned to monitor the incident Tactical Channel(s). Personnel should attempt to track through radio traffic where on scene Crews/Companies are operating within the incident and/or structure.

“While maintaining a presence in an identified designated area, Level I, Level II, or Level III RIC personnel operating an incident should familiarize themselves with the affected building, specifically where fire crews are operating. Within this ‘familiarization’ period, if necessary, RIC members should begin ‘prepping’ the building for potential RIC deployment. Prep action(s) may include ‘softening’ the building, laddering the building, and opening adjacent businesses or occupancies.”

As you can see in the policy statement, RIC crews are expected to monitor fireground communications. We also want crews to be accountable—i.e., who is on-scene and where are they working? Crews are expected to take their assignment seriously, to pick a place to deploy, and to remain available for their function if needed. While remaining available, they can do some simple tasks to prepare for a rescue, should one arise. The officer should take a 360° walk around the building and perform reconnaissance of the building and its condition.

During this recon, an officer can determine the simple jobs that will help the situation while remaining disciplined and not getting sucked into the firefight itself. Providing secondary egress and “softening” the building are some considerations; these two functions go hand in hand. For crews operating above the ground floor, strategically place a ladder in an upper window to provide a quick escape. RIC members can proactively soften, or remove, hardened obstacles for egress, such as window bars, extra security on exit doors, and objects blocking exits. They can also confirm that the crews have addressed the utilities.

You must understand this policy’s terms, such as “familiarization,” “prepping,” and “softening.” Create a glossary when you use these terms in a regional approach to company assignments. These glossaries are in our training manuals from the academy throughout our continuing education. Create one that will communicate specifically what things mean within your system, and standardize communication. Some examples follow:

Take a lap. Whenever possible, the arriving company officer should view numerous sides of the involved building while the apparatus operator pulls up to and beyond the building to leave a spot for the truck company and give the officer a three-sided view. The officer will complete the building recon by walking around the building to get the fourth side view. At complex buildings this is not possible, so assign other companies to provide this information from alternate locations.

Complex building.This building, because of its size or arrangement, will not allow a four-sided view by one company. Tactical priorities will be to assign companies to alternate locations so assigned crews can obtain a complete picture of the incident.

Softening. This is the act of removing obstacles for firefighter egress. Remove or relocate window bars, security devices on exterior doors, and objects or debris that will complicate the exit of interior crews for firefighter safety.

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(4) RIC assignments should be proactive. Securing secondary egress, “softening” the building, communications, and crew accountability are some of the proactive duties.

Identify your commonly used terms, and give them a definition to help all members communicate more effectively. The key to using such a list of terms is for all members, from the chiefs on down, to practice their fireground language in drills and at incidents.

 

COMMANDING THE MAYDAY

 

The next to last step to implement this program is involving the chief officers. If a Sacramento County firefighter is lost or trapped, Command will typically assign the rescue effort to a chief officer. For chief officers to know and understand the tactics and capabilities of the trained RIC crews, they must attend the “Commanding the Mayday” course.

This 24-hour course teaches topics such as air management, thermal imaging cameras, officer roles and responsibilities, how the crews will package and extricate the firefighters, RIC deployment, and search line options. Highly experienced chief officers will teach this class to lend a level of expertise to the course delivery. Without this component, the system is not complete.

The Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department study and other studies indicate that it takes about 12 firefighters to rescue one. The most highly trained crews will not successfully rescue their own without a well-organized and well-executed plan to reach, package, and extricate the downed member. Having a rescue group supervisor who understands extrication and RIC deployment will help ensure the best possible outcome.

 

SYSTEM MAINTENANCE

 

We started system maintenance by using management-by-objectives principles; evaluation is the final step in this process. Provide this training to all new members in the county, and provide regular refresher training to all crews. Compare your actions against your objectives. Did you accomplish all that you set out to do? Those measureable objectives are the easy ones to calculate.

For example, we purchased the appropriate equipment and deployed it on the appropriate apparatus. Those objectives that are more difficult to measure will also be harder to recognize as having been completed. One unwritten objective was to do our part to reduce LODDs. How will we ever know if the education and practice we provide saved a firefighter from an actual emergency? We may never know. We calculate the impact of fire on the community in dollars lost to its ravages. Why don’t we calculate our efforts in dollars saved? Can’t we say that if we kept a fire to the building of origin that we in effect saved the entire city? How do we know how big the fire would have gotten without our intervention?

It’s the same with preventing a Mayday; we’ll never know if one would have happened without the training. I would rather implement programs and provide the training, and then spend the rest of my life wondering if it worked than wear my Class A uniform to say goodbye to a friend.

SEAN STUMBAUGH is a 26-year fire service veteran and a battalion chief with the Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department in Elk Grove, California. He has an associate degree in fire protection technology and is a California-certified chief officer, fire officer, and instructor III.

 

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