Milford Daily News, Mass.
May 6—FRANKLIN — Amid a cacophony of shrill, ear-splitting warning alarms, a voice crackles across the radio waves connecting members of the Franklin Fire Department with one another like an invisible safety net.
“I need help! I got separated from my team! I need help!” the voice urges. “My air is low! Hurry, hurry, I need help!”
Standing outside the scene, Battalion Chief Chuck Allen receives the mayday and takes immediate action, launching a four-person Rapid Intervention Team to respond.
Within 2 minutes, team members are crawling through the active scene in full gear, doling out a safety line — like breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel’s forest — blindly making their way toward their fallen brother.
Time is of the essence.
They navigate with their hands and ears, feeling for obstacles and listening for the unique bleeping of the downed firefighter’s personal siren. The chaos of blaring warning signals around them is distracting, and it’s not easy to hone in on that one alarm among many distractions, the Darth Vader-like breathing inside their masks, and the crackle of radio chatter.
A needle in a haystack, crafted from sound.
But it’s not long before the lead team member’s thickly-gloved hand falls upon the boot of the downed firefighter, trapped under fallen “debris.”
The work of pulling the unconscious responder out begins.
Fortunately, he’s not a real person … this time. He’s a 180-pound dummy dressed in full gear, which brings his total weight close to 200 pounds — a burden firefighters must drag to “safety” across the wide vehicle bays and through the locker room of the town’s auxiliary fire station on King Street. All without the use of their eyes.
The scene at the station on April 30 was part of an exercise that was the culmination of rapid intervention training that Franklin’s firefighters recently completed — training that is standard at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, but that not all working firefighters have had a chance to experience.
It was the first time the 56 members of the Franklin Fire Department got a chance to take the training as a group, outside of the academy.
“This is new for the whole department,” said Fire Chief James McLaughlin. “The recruits get this at the Mass. Fire Academy but some of the older firefighters did not.”
RIT training, he noted, wasn’t around even 15 years ago.
Allen explained that the training, brought to fire departments around the state through the Rapid Intervention Safety & Survivor Program for the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, teaches working firefighters the critical skills they need to help each other in the event one of them is trapped or injured in a fire scene.
“I’ve been on this job for 27 years. When I first started we didn’t have any of this,” Allen said. “This is fantastic.”
Fire Lt. Paul Molla agreed.
“This is really the only training we do to help ourselves, so it’s very important training for us,” he said. “It’s spectacular.”
Firefighters put together a grant to cover the costs of the training, some equipment, and to pay for other firefighters to cover the station since participants are still technically on duty during the training.
“We got an Assistance to Firefighters Grant from FEMA,” said McLaughlin. “All of these guys are on duty, but their backfill is being paid by the grant.”
The class is taught by instructors from the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy who work for various departments throughout the state.
“Generally, this is a two-day program — 8 hours a day, for 16 hours total,” said Brad Kwatcher, assistant coordinator for the Rapid Intervention Safety & Survivor Program who is also a Bellingham firefighter.
Franklin firefighters were trained in groups over the course of a couple of weeks. The program teaches the same skills and procedures to firefighters across the state.
“The idea behind this program is it’s a statewide initiative to train firefighters so that if you have a situation where you have a guy from Bellingham, a guy from Franklin, a guy from Cambridge at a fire, they are all on the same page, they’re speaking the same language,” Kwatcher said.
It’s something all firefighters take to heart. They know better than almost anyone that, if they can’t help themselves when they’re in trouble, they also can’t help those who need them.
“It’s the darkest part of the day for us when somebody is down,” said Bob Remillard, a lieutenant in the call department in Grafton who has been a support person for the Rapid Intervention Training Program for years.
The training, Kwatcher noted, is not easy.
“There is a lot of moving, a lot of pulling, a lot of dragging,” he said.
During the program, firefighters trained on mayday procedures they would use to call for help if they or another firefighter were trapped or lost inside a structure.
“The training also includes what the firefighters serving as the RIT team outside use as techniques to quickly locate and remove a trapped firefighter, whether on an upper floor or in a basement,” said McLaughlin. “They also train on bringing in an extra air bottle to the down firefighter in case the down firefighter is out of air and needs additional air while they free and remove the firefighter who may be in trouble.”
Additionally, training includes putting firefighters through an entanglement prop so they can learn to do things like navigate a ceiling collapse, and practicing the “Weymouth carry” — used to evacuate an unconscious firefighter down a ladder.
During their training, Franklin firefighters practiced using bailout ropes as well — and through the grant, department members were issued their own 50-foot length of rope in a pouch to add to their gear.
“We had to practice bailing out a window. You have to build confidence in doing something like that,” Allen said.
It’s better to be practiced at it before you ever need it, he said, “rather than having to do that in a real-life scenario for the first time.”
All of the scenarios firefighters are put through during the training “are based on real-life firefighting incidents,” said Kwatcher, and instructors do all they can to create simulations that can make a firefighter really sweat things out.
“Sometimes we’ll do this with smoke, and sometimes — like with this one — their face pieces are blacked out,” Kwatcher said.
Even knowing it’s a simulation, it feels real in many ways, Molla said.
“When you’re blacked out, it just adds to the stress level. It’s very stressful and it’s very strenuous,” he said.
Kwatcher pointed out that firefighters do get into full gear and “are working at full capacity,” even though the flames, intense heat and heavy smoke of a real fire scene are absent. Instructors initate multiple alarms so firefighters get practice with doing the skills amid distraction, just as it would be in a real fire situation.
At real fire scenes, he said, “there are alarms going off … smoke detectors, fire alarms. We make it (the simulation) as distracting as possible. We want to make it as real life as possible.”
Over the course of the training, firefighters are drilled on the various skills. At the end of the course is the simulation.
“They’re simulating a downed firefighter in a burning building. We do two company scenarios and everything they practiced (during the program) is included,” Kwatcher said.
McLaughlin said the entire expense of undertaking the training was covered by the grant.
“The town is not paying for the time or equipment,” he said.
The department, he noted, has been fortunate to obtain numerous grants in recent years, including grants to bring back a comprehensive training program that had fallen by the wayside because of tight budgets. Keeping up to date on skills and new firefighting equipment is of paramount importance for all firefighters.
“We have our own group of guys, rank-and-file guys, who get together on their own time and put this all together,” the chief said.
Since 2019, the Franklin Fire Department has brought in more than $250,000 in grants.
At the end of their training, participants gathered outside the King Street station to discuss how things went. In Kwatcher’s estimation, “overall, very well done.”
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