Experience-Based Scenarios Enhance Survival Training

BY FRED P. LaFEMINA

Firefighter rescue is at the forefront of fire service training programs because, unfortunately, we continue to have distressed members in need of removal at incidents. The fire service has developed and taught many techniques on this subject, an important part of training for experienced and junior firefighters.

The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Rescue School wanted to take this training to another level. In past years, rescuing and removing trapped firefighters has always been a rescue company duty. In FDNY, squad company members are trained to function at the same level as rescue firefighters. A number of FDNY squad officers and firefighters, all of whom had at least once been directly involved in rescuing or removing firefighters from a fire or a collapse, brainstormed on different rescue/removal situations they had encountered. They considered how they could incorporate their experiences into real training. This became a key part of the four-day Advanced Firefighter Removal course, which offers more advanced techniques taught only to rescue and squad firefighters. The Division of Training also offers a basic removal program. The participants would describe the conditions they encountered and the techniques they used at these incidents, which would give the evolutions solid credibility. Although training is great, it can never replace actual experience.


(1) A firefighter trapped on the second floor of a row-frame house awaiting assistance. (Photos courtesy of the Fire Department of New York.)

The training included searching structures with large or complex layouts to challenge firefighters in searching for life or fire. Instructors taught students techniques for using the tools they need to systematically and safely search for and locate missing or trapped firefighters. This was conducted at a remote facility separate from the academy.

One training day focused on reenacting actual firefighter entrapment incidents involving removal of a member who was injured or dead. The instructors secured four wood-frame private dwellings in which to conduct this training and reproduced heat and smoke conditions as far as could be safely allowed. On arrival, members deployed according to the incident time frame. Although we could not completely reproduce the actual event, we came close.

This training course had to overcome many obstacles before it even started. Preparation, logistics, instructors, and equipment required significant training budget increases for Special Operations Command. The FDNY considered this training an important element for developing our rescue operations division and helped remove the obstacles to ensure its members would be fully prepared if and when such events occurred. Chief officers were brought in on the last day of the training and were thrust into a rescue scenario and had to operate accordingly. Although nothing compares with actual experience, this course came pretty close.

DAY 1: FIREFIGHTER REMOVAL

Day 1 began with a short lecture on the importance of knowing your job, knowing your position, and maintaining your operational discipline at all times. Performing your position’s required duties is absolutely paramount; any deviation can affect the outcome. This can’t be overemphasized; members who freelance, even with good intentions, usually become part of the problem. Although fire operations are dynamic and events progress very quickly, you must be aware that the incident commander (IC) has a plan and is the only one who can approve and implement any deviations.

Training on that day also focused on the importance of mastering the basic firefighter removal evolutions to achieve proficiency in advanced techniques. Participants practiced firefighter removal procedures such as lifting, dragging, stair lifts, lifting a victim out a window, and removing a member who had fallen through the floor.


(2) A RIT removed the firefighter to the street using a portable ladder. He had suffered burns and required medical treatment.

At an actual incident, these operations are often conducted under great stress and in very punishing conditions. Issues discussed included such difficulties as fire conditions, large and complex search areas, the distressed firefighter’s size, rescuer fatigue, and available resources and equipment.

Imagine that a firefighter in your company is reported missing or is transmitting a Mayday. At that very moment, are you ready to assist? Can you maintain operational discipline while still aiding your fellow firefighter? Remember the old saying, “Put the fire out, and a lot of the problems (or projected ones) will go away.” Plan for that exact moment; even just discussing this possibility with other members at informal drills or thinking about it in your head will give you some options to consider if you ever face this situation.

I have been directly involved with such operations, which are emotionally and physically demanding; the stress is indescribable. We discussed rescuer fatigue at length during the training. Firefighting is physically demanding even during “routine” operations (not that there is anything routine about firefighting); add to this conducting a search under punishing conditions and, when you think you cannot go any further, you hear the dreaded word “Mayday!” over the radio.

Your mind tells you to go, and your adrenaline provides the energy for you to continue as you attempt to locate the firefighter. Finding him, you initiate removal procedures after announcing over the radio that you have found him. You start basic removal procedures you have learned when your SCBA’s low-air alarm sounds. You have to make some decisions, right? Nobody has reached your location, you are physically exhausted, and your air supply is low.

Following are some decisions to make and questions to ponder: Can I get the firefighter out without collapsing from exhaustion? Can I get myself out? Do I have enough air to reach a safe haven before succumbing to smoke inhalation? These are just a few questions, but they are pretty important ones. How about human nature—are you ready to die? These are some issues you will have to address when the time arrives.

Although many of the techniques practiced in the course were common removal methods, to make them a little bit more challenging, firefighters practiced conducting them wearing blacked-out face pieces in props designed to simulate narrow areas and confined spaces. Members had to use the two-member, push-pull method in these areas to remove a trapped member and be innovative with their technique. Some used 2:1 mechanical advantage (MA) systems to haul members vertically or remove them horizontally. They also had to perform an airway, breathing, and circulation (ABC) assessment on the distressed firefighter and demonstrate the proper method of converting the SCBA into a harness.

Other scenarios involved removal from belowgrade areas using ropes, stokes, and backboards or a combination of the three and also using hose and ladders. Removing members through windows using portable ladders required the students to construct a 2:1 MA system to assist in the removal. One of the basic scenarios consisted of using a charged hoseline to remove a firefighter from a belowgrade area. Some of these skills were team-oriented; firefighters were assigned as units during these drills.

To make the scenarios even more realistic, all the victims used were firefighters dressed in full personal protective gear (PPE) and SCBA. Some wore PPE that was soaked in water, which made the removals even more difficult. Wet PPE adds an additional 81 pounds to the weight of the firefighter who is unable to move on his own.

One important consideration in training evolutions and in actual rescues: When removing a firefighter wearing a turnout coat outfitted with the drag rescue device (DRD), do not attempt to lift or lower the victim using the DRD; you could possibly strangle him.

DAY 2: TEAM SEARCH

Day 2 began with a PowerPoint® presentation on team search operations. The second portion consisted of two search practice sessions at the fire academy and a simulated scenario. The simulated scenario was conducted off-site at an old psychiatric facility because it had large open areas as well as some areas with complex layouts, which gave the training a more realistic feel. At the completion of this training day, members could determine when to implement team search operations, understand how to use and deploy a search rope with tag lines, and operate efficiently in different positions of the search team.

Team search is defined as a search tool used to efficiently, thoroughly, and safely search a large or complex area. Members are taught to maintain search team integrity under stressful conditions. Additions to this definition would include the proper use of search ropes to ensure that large or complex areas can be safely and thoroughly searched. The system allows for minimal duplication while allowing for a quick path to exit if needed.


(3) Conditions can deteriorate rapidly. This fire progressed unexpectedly while a firefighter was inside on the second floor conducting a search for trapped occupants.

In large or complex areas, disorientation can become a factor in members becoming lost. Operating in immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmospheres, in areas with rapidly changing conditions, and in unfamiliar areas contributes to disorientation.

Some search team and IC concerns include identifying and managing the ropes already deployed. Resources must be available because these searches could be of extended duration and personnel rotation must be addressed.

Historically, failure to maintain disciplined search team integrity and accountability has led to serious injuries and fatalities to firefighters and, subsequently, their rescuers during operations. This cannot be overemphasized.

In this training, participants learned to operate as a team, each with designated and standardized positions. Each team position has a specific function and assigned tools. Some of the required equipment would include search ropes with taglines, halligans and axes, thermal imaging cameras (TICs), strobe lights, FAST SCBA (used to replenish air in a depleted cylinder or provide air directly to a civilian or firefighter), stokes, spare cylinders, and sometimes a charged hoseline.

As always, fireground communications can become very confusing and overwhelming. During the search of large or complex areas, consider assigning the FAST/RIT to a separate tactical radio frequency. This provides the IC with swift and concise information; messages will not be stepped on or delayed as they might be if transmitted over the primary tactical channel. If available, the IC should get a second radio to monitor this channel or assign a member as the removal supervisor and have him operate on the secondary tactical channel.

Members had to demonstrate proper anchoring techniques of the rope and the proper knots to secure it and learned how to deploy and manage the rope according to the area to be searched. Searching large open areas requires different techniques compared with searching office buildings with cubicles.

Students learned air management techniques including formulas to assist them in calculating operational and exit time.

Some key safety points for members operating off a search/tagline would be never, under any circumstances, leave the rope. Maintain operational discipline, and follow the directions of the team leader. Always remain aware of changing conditions and your air supply. If you become separated, stay put; you may be only a few feet from the line. Try to contact a member of the team to assist.

Team search is a disciplined management activity and requires thinking firefighters. All firefighters should practice and master rope skills. This concept is another tool in your toolbox.

DAY 3: THERMAL IMAGING

Day 3 training consisted of the proper use of the TIC and its application at team search operations. The day began in the classroom with students reviewing their TIC training. All rescue operations members receive initial TIC training when attending rescue technician training. Most of the day involved participants operating in the academy’s burn building under simulated fire conditions and using the camera to locate downed firefighters.


(4) Thermal imaging camera image of a team search in progress.

Each member entered the IDLH atmosphere and demonstrated the proper use of the camera during team search operations. Members enjoyed this part of the training because they got down and dirty in the burn building. They learned that the TIC can assist in locating trapped firefighters, monitor the search team’s progress, and identify possible avenues of exit through the smoke. When locating a downed firefighter using the TIC, the team used its required skills to remove the member to a safe area.

Some lessons learned from this exercise include using two cameras (if available) for team search operations. The team leader carries one, and the control person located at the point of entry carries the second one.

Day 4: SCENARIO RECREATION

On Day 4, members operated under actual conditions with the scenes recreated from actual incidents in which FDNY members were trapped. In the morning, each of five instructors reviewed a case study of an actual incident at which that instructor was directly involved in removing a firefighter. Participants viewed and discussed a PowerPoint® presentation that included the fire incidents’ radio transmissions. Incidents included successful and not-so-successful operations.

Each instructor described his own experience and emotions during the slide presentation. This was without doubt a powerful and emotional part of the training. Hearing the words coming from the mouths of the players could never replace any other type of training. The instructor used the incident’s communication tapes, if available, and discussed them at length with the students. Students heard the trapped members’ distress messages and noted how composed they remained during their ordeals. Other transmissions consisted of dialog and then silence from the member.

During the last part of the day, students were transported to the structures used for the rescue incident reenactments. Most of the scenarios took place in belowgrade areas, and heat and smoke conditions were recreated. Each participating team consisted of a team leader or officer and members from the same unit. Having members from the same units work together enables them to operate as they would during their regular tours of duty. The teams were briefed concerning the problem occurring in the fire building and were deployed to address it. Instructors occasionally interjected real fireground problems that would naturally occur during the scenario’s progress. One involved the rescue area and stairway crowding, which occurs way too often on the fireground. Team leaders had to conduct operations safely and efficiently while addressing all issues, especially air management.

At the end of the day, many students were humbled, and this was just a training exercise. Many members confronted high-stress and dangerous situations and had to control their emotions as well as their operational discipline. This was probably the most intense training I have ever attended in my 24 years on the job. My vision would be that all members of the fire service would receive this training.

All of the training was conducted according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards that cover training. Using the NFPA standards allows fire departments to safely conduct training and avoid legal issues that may arise.

Author’s note: Thanks to the FDNY members whose dedication and support contributed to the success of the advanced firefighter rescue training module: Chief of Department Salvatore Cassano, Chief of Training Thomas Galvin, Captain Phil Ruvalo (Rescue 2), Lieutenant Kevin Williams (Rescue 3), Lieutenant Mickey Conboy (Squad 41), and the FDNY Technical Rescue School.

FRED P. LaFEMINA is the chief of rescue operations in the Fire Department of New York Special Operations Command (SOC). He is task force leader for FEMA USAR NY-TF-1.

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