Fundamentals of RIT

By Joseph McClelland

The role of the rapid intervention team (RIT) is an essential function that must be staffed at any building fire. Some view the assignment as “boring,” or a task that keeps their crew from getting into the “action.” However, RIT is an assignment that must be taken seriously at all times. You never know when a Mayday may be transmitted and you will be called to aid a brother or a sister in trouble. This article focuses on some fundamental steps a RIT must take at a fire scene prior to deployment. It discusses tasks from dispatch to just before entering the structure in a Mayday scenario, the tools you should bring for fast, effective deployment, and the functions of each RIT member.

Those who do not see the need for deployment of a RIT at building fires are reminded to look at the current standards and regulations the fire service follows: National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program; NFPA Standard 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System; and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134(g)(4), Procedures for Interior Structural Firefighting. All these standards require that personnel be available to rescue members operating inside an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) atmosphere. However, the development, response, make-up, and deployment of the RIT is left up to the discretion of the authority having jurisdiction.

Chapter 8 of NFPA 1500 states the following:

The fire department shall provide personnel for the rescue of members operating at emergency incidents. (b) A rapid intervention crew/company shall consist of at least two members and shall be available for rescue of a member or a crew. (c) The composition and structure of a rapid intervention crew/company shall be permitted to be flexible based on the type of incident and the size and complexity of operations.

NFPA 1561 states the following:

This standard shall meet the requirements of Chapter 8 of NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and OSHA 29 CFR 1910.120(q)(3).

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.120, Standard on Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response, section (q) (3) requires the following:

Back-up personnel shall be standing by with equipment ready to provide assistance or rescue. Qualified basic life support personnel, as a minimum, shall also be standing by with medical equipment and transportation capability.

OSHA 29 CFR 1910.134(g)(4) states the following:

A minimum of two (2) firefighters, fully equipped and trained SHALL be on standby outside the structure to provide assistance or perform rapid rescue, if needed. Voice, visual, or radio contact is required between the interior and exterior teams at all times. One of the exterior team members must be free of all other tasks in order to account for, and if necessary, initiate a rescue of those firefighters inside. While the second exterior team member may perform some other tasks, this individual must be able to abandon them without jeopardizing the safety and health of others at the scene.  

Requirements for rapid intervention are also addressed in NFPA Standard 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, Section 5.2.3.1.2, and NFPA Standard 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, Section 3.3.23

Since these RIT directives have been in existence for many years, most fire service leaders are more than aware of the requirements. The challenge is establishing a RIT that not only meets the standards but that will also be effective if it is needed to rescue a downed firefighter.

The reality is that the RIT is meant to be an insurance policy for our own. Those assigned to this position should at a minimum be trained in the following area: knots, search, selecting and using hand tools, reading smoke, building construction and fire behavior, and be prepared to respond to a Mayday occurring in a rapidly changing, hostile atmosphere.

Unless your agency has a preassigned RIT on every emergency scene, you should be prepared to be given this assignment when you arrive. This means that things that could be deemed common sense (like listening to radio traffic) should be taken more serious to discern information about building construction, fire location, how many companies are operating inside the structure, whether roof operations are being undertaken, and whether the fire is offensive or defensive.

On arrival, gather the tools you will need to get you in as well as get you and your victim out of the structure. Keep in mind that firefighters should never be working alone unless assigned the outside vent position. Therefore, as a RIT member, be prepared for the possibility of multiple victims. You can always request multiple RIT teams if you think more help may be needed, and you should do this if there is any indication the search for or removal of a downed firefighter will be time consuming, such as in the case of industrial buildings, apartment buildings, nursing homes, very long or very wide buildings, or high-rises.                                                                                

The type of building construction should be ascertained as soon as possible to help with tool selection. Remember, the RIT needs to have the tools to combat almost any situation they come across, but not so many that it slows the team. The structure type will affect the choice of tools you need. At a minimum, you will need the following:

  • Full personal protective equipment with self-contained breathing apparatus.
  • A radio
  • A rope bag with 150 feet of rope
  • One of your department’s air bottles with your department’s face mask
  • A prying tool and a smashing tool
  • A thermal imaging camera (TIC)
  • A chain saw and/or a rotary saw with a metal blade.

You can bring more tools, but you may start to weigh your team down with too much equipment. If there is a need for heavier extrication tools, air bags, or other tools, supporting companies can bring them in after you have located the downed member(s). Each situation and scene will dictate what other tools may be needed.    

Once you and your equipment get to the scene, start looking for the “perfect” location to stage. Command should not influence where you stage. Put your equipment where you think the best location will be for a fast deployment, if activated. The best location may not always be the front of the structure. Just because attack lines are going in through the front door does not mean that is where you are going to enter if deployed.                                                               

Let’s be truthful here: If a Mayday comes in, all members operating on the fireground are going to run to the building to help. Because of this fact, your access point may be a side door or a second-floor window. This needs to be discussed on your walk-around and made clear to the entire crew.

After you find the “best” spot to stage, notify command that RIT is going to perform its walk around the building, if possible. The entire crew should walk together. This will allow conversation to take place on possible tactics and ensure that all crewmembers see the same things concerning the structure and that nothing gets lost in translation. At a minimum, the crew should carry a smashing tool and a prying tool during your walk. This will allow the RIT to force any doors around the structure if needed. Once forced, the doors should be closed so as not to affect the fire. Command should be notified of any doors that are opened. If the RIT comes across burglar bars or doors that necessitate a prolonged time to open, command should be notified of the location and type of obstruction, and should request that a truck crew respond with the proper tools needed to complete the task. The crew also can shut off gas at the meter when it comes across it on the walk.

Once the walk is completed, the RIT officer should go to the incident commander (IC) and inform him of the team’s findings and tasks completed during the walk. The RIT officer should find out from command the following: current attack strategy, location and number of crews operating inside the structure, estimated burn time of fire, if the roof is open, the amount of time current companies have been inside and on air, and if a RIT chief and a dedicated RIT ambulance have been assigned. Much more may be asked, but this information should be obtained to start the team’s triage of the RIT task. Once this minimum information has been acquired, RIT should inform command of its location and return to the crew and inform them of the conversation with command.

While the RIT officer is gathering his information, the other RIT members should be at the equipment setting up the tools and assigning them to members to allow for rapid deployment should a Mayday be transmitted. Any gas-powered tools should now be started to ensure they are in working order and warmed up if needed. If the RIT does not have a particular tool it deems may be of assistance (like a TIC or a particular type of saw), the team should go to the closest rigs to try to acquire what is needed.          

Once the RIT feels it has the needed equipment, it should stage the tools and make assignments. RIT members do not have to just stand around after these actions. RIT can still be proactive. If the structure is a multistory; RIT can throw ladders obtained from a close rig to windows in the entrance/rescue position of the floors on which crews are working. If any task is going to be undertaken, the entire crew should go together to ensure continuity and that they will all respond together if deployed. They also serve as “extra eyes” for command concerning safety and outward signs of changes in conditions of the smoke, the building, and other factors that affect firefighter safety.

Once a RIT chief is assigned and is at RIT staging, it is his job to go to command for frequent status updates and to inform the RIT of attack progress, current tactics and plans, the locations and number of crews inside and on the structure, and the possible fire location. The RIT chief is the direct liaison to command if the RIT is deployed, leaving the RIT officer free to work with the team and not to have to worry about radio traffic.

As often as the RIT officer deems necessary, the team should perform a walk around the building to see how conditions are changing during the firefight; check on other ancillary actions being undertaken on, in, and around the structure; and to check on any safety issues and bring the information to the attention of the RIT chief. Once the walk is completed, members should return to their staging location, monitor all radio traffic, and remain at the highest level of readiness should a call for help be given. It is imperative that the RIT remain fully dressed and be prepared to deploy. During extended operations, the RIT officer should be prepared to have the crew rotated through rehab after 40 minutes. Even if it has not been deployed, the team will become fatigued from maintaining a ready posture for an extended time.                                                              

In summary, the task of the RIT should never be taken lightly or be perceived as a punishment or menial task. It has the potential to be the most important crew on the fireground. Once on scene and assigned to RIT, the crew must gain as much information as possible about what is happening in the fire attack to be as prepared as possible for deployment. The crew needs to bring equipment to the building and complete the walk-around to gain firsthand knowledge of the scene and the tactics being undertaken. Members must be given tool assignments and any equipment not brought by the RIT should be obtained and checked prior to deployment.

Joe McClelland is a firefighter with the Midlothian (IL) Fire Department. He was previously a part-time firefighter with the North Palos (IL) Fire Protection District and is a field instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute’s Cornerstone Program.

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