BY LARRY COLLINS
There’s almost nothing more important than reducing the time to remove downed firefighters (except preventing them from becoming lost, trapped, or injured in the first place). The faster we can make it, the better. In addition to the standard drag rescue device (DRD), building handles into each knee and shoulder of turnout gear can improve firefighter safety and survival — rescuers can just grab the handles and go with no special equipment needed. With such handles, colleagues can drag, lift, carry, and lower an incapacitated firefighter, depending on how many rescuers are available at the moment.
We’re often reminded that “Rapid intervention isn’t always rapid.” Rapid intervention teams (RITs) may encounter time-consuming problems locating, freeing, and removing lost, trapped, or injured firefighters. Dragging, lifting, carrying, or lowering downed firefighters, who with full personal protective equipment (PPE) may weigh more than 250 pounds, can be problematic. More often than not, debris piles, furniture, and other obstacles are in the way, necessitating that the firefighter be lifted and carried toward the exit. When firefighters need rescue, the environment is already or is quickly becoming untenable. All too often, poor visibility, entanglement hazards, structural collapse, potential flashover, a maze of obstacles, blocked exits, or other conditions further delay exit.
When it is necessary to lift an incapacitated firefighter out a window, position him on a ladder, carry him over the inevitable debris piles, carry him up the stairs from a basement, or maneuver him through tight obstructions, removal becomes even more difficult and time-consuming. If the firefighter’s SCBA bottle is low on air, even a few seconds can make the difference between survival and a line-of-duty death (LODD).
Several years ago, a Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department (LACoFD) captain wearing gloves and SCBA fell through a warehouse roof and landed on a pile of burning debris; he was trapped and running out of air. His gloved hands were badly burned and quickly becoming useless. A RIT went to search for him, but the size and complexity of the floor plan and the fire conditions worked against them. As the captain’s SCBA tank approached empty, he kept his SCBA mask and hose in place to protect his lungs. He took his last breath of good air from the bottle, hoping his colleagues would find him in time. He experienced rapid hypoxia followed by anoxia and fell unconscious.
The RIT heard his PASS device sounding in another room behind locked doors. The team broke through the door and struggled to find the burned captain in the inferno; they carried him out before he succumbed. Fortunately, the captain recovered and is on the job today. It was a reminder that during rapid intervention operations, the clock is working against the incapacitated firefighter and his rescuers and that, in some cases, every second saved counts.
Drill Inspires Grab-and-Go Concept
In 2006, LACoFD conducted a rapid intervention drill in a warehouse, testing new methods for following hoselines and finding and removing downed firefighters in zero-visibility conditions, simulated by pulling hoods over SCBA masks. Although participants were able to locate the downed member, they repeatedly encountered delays in moving the “downed firefighter” toward the exit after they found him, which has occurred in other rapid intervention drills over the years.
The methods for moving the downed firefighters included the following: unclipping his SCBA belt, looping it between the legs to create a drag harness; using a one-inch nylon webbing sling to create a drag/carry sling or harness; using a hose strap to make a “lark’s foot” around part of the SCBA harness frame; and looping a rapid intervention strap around and creating a cinch for dragging (in another version of this, multiple firefighters each used their rapid intervention strap to loop an arm or leg, and they were then able to carry the downed firefighter with their improvised “handles”).
Participants repeatedly lost critical time in fumbling with SCBA belts they couldn’t feel with gloved hands. They had trouble reconnecting SCBA belt clips after passing them between the victim’s legs to create a drag harness without looking at the clips. They had trouble “lark’s footing” the SCBA harness frame with hose straps and difficulty passing one-inch webbing around a downed colleague and creating a cinch strap, because they would often lose the running end since they could not feel the webbing with gloved hands and they weren’t allowed in this exercise to pull down their blinders to look. In some cases, it took “blinded” firefighters minutes to secure a downed colleague for carrying or dragging. This is common in RIT exercises elsewhere also (photo 1). Repeatedly during the exercise in question, using the rapid intervention strap was found to be the fastest method of securing a downed firefighter. Even so, it sometimes took the blind firefighters up to 30 or 40 seconds to deploy the strap, encircle the downed colleague, pass the bight, and begin moving him toward safety.
(1) Photo by author.
Some of these times for securing simulated “downed” firefighters for dragging or carrying were consistent with those noted in many other rapid intervention drills in different parts of the country; they matched times of other departments that had conducted similar drills with zero-visibility blinders using those methods with full PPE including National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)-approved structure firefighting gloves.
The normal methods of securing the firefighter for carrying or dragging repeatedly proved unwieldy and time-consuming to firefighters operating in simulated zero-visibility conditions wearing all their PPE, including thick structure firefighting gloves (which they were not allowed to remove because of the hazard in real fires for serious burns and possibly incapacitation of the hands). The extra time spent may make the difference between life or death, especially if the downed firefighter has only seconds left to get to fresh air before his survival chances drop off.
Many of the drill participants said later that in an actual rapid intervention situation they would skip the more elaborate capture methods and simply “grab the guy by the turnouts and start dragging or carrying” him using any handhold they could find—that is, “grab and go.”
It has also become evident over the years of rapid intervention research, development, planning, and operations that personnel closest to the incapacitated firefighter are often in the best position to find and rescue him, using what equipment they have with them. Although specialized rapid intervention equipment is fine, if it’s too large, heavy, or bulky to carry all the time, it’s obviously not going to be available when it’s needed most.
BUILD IN HANDLES
One solution is to package the firefighter like a suitcase so he can be dragged or carried easily with handles already attached to him. Build his turnouts with handles already installed in the right places, covered with hook-and-loop-secured flaps to keep the handles from snagging on obstacles. On encountering a downed member, RIT members could simply pull the flaps, expose the four handles, and “grab him and go,” carrying the downed colleague toward safety.
After the 2006 rapid intervention drill, a team of colleagues and I proposed to test the effectiveness of this idea by building several prototype “grab-and-go” turnouts with handles at each knee and each shoulder. We would then randomly select firefighters in different battalions to determine whether the concept would save a significant amount of time in removing downed firefighters from immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) conditions. Although the idea seemed almost absurdly simple, we couldn’t find any examples of turnouts with handles built into them for carrying (at the arms and legs) in any fire service or manufacturer literature.
Battalion Chief Bruce Dean, head of the LACoFD’s Equipment Development Committee and part of a multiagency consortium for firefighter PPE design specs, approved the request to experiment by building handles into out-of-service turnouts. They would strictly be used for experimentation and testing; personnel were not to wear them for fireground operations.
Dean informed us of the then-new drag rescue device (DRD) concept that had evolved from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department’s tragic death of Brett Tarver in a supermarket fire and was on the way to becoming part of the NFPA 1971, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting, which now (2007 edition) requires a DRD to be built into every new turnout coat. The DRD commonly is a system of webbing, rope, or other material that protrudes from the turnout coat between the shoulder blades just beneath the collar. It is accessible without interference from the wearer’s SCBA to permit the rescue of an incapacitated firefighter (photo 2). It’s designed to allow rescuers to drag a downed firefighter horizontally over a specified distance without breaking. At present, NFPA 1971 does not require DRDs to be designed for vertical raising and lowering.
Subsequent testing by our team has shown that a combined system with a standard DRD between the shoulder blades and four “grab-and-go” (configurable DRD) handles built into the turnouts’ knees and shoulders seems to be most effective for the widest range of downed firefighter situations. The combined system allows a firefighter to be dragged across a floor or down stairs, carried over debris piles or up or down stairs, lifted through a window, or lowered onto an outside ladder. If the system is designed and built in a certain way, it could even be used to vertically raise a firefighter from a cellar or a pit or lower him out a window, using the handles.
The initial grab-and-go design team included members of the LACoFD’s Rapid Intervention Working Group. We consulted with several manufacturers and manufacturing representatives of the Southern Area Fire Equipment Research (SAFER) Committee who were interested in developing the concept. The turnout/bunker gear supplier for my department eventually got involved and became an active partner in developing a working design.
But in the beginning, we worked with a turnout cleaning/repair/maintenance vendor. The vendor sewed Nomex® handles onto out-of-service bunker gear sets, which had been marked prominently to signify that they were not to be used in actual emergency operations.
The first prototype turnouts were set up with two-inch nylon webbing handles attached below the armpits (along the mid-axilary line) on the jacket and at the waist on the pants (photo 3). Not having tried it before, we thought that perhaps the jacket handle locations might be more ergonomically balanced, but we were wrong. They worked well for lifting and carrying, but the jacket handles were sometimes difficult to locate and deploy on “downed” firefighters during testing sessions, and the hip handles were clearly not in a good spot.
The second prototype jacket included turnout fabric flaps with hook-and-loop closures that covered the handles to prevent snagging. In the second pants prototype, the waist handles were moved to the midthigh, which seemed to work well in balancing a firefighter. However, in this position, the handles sometimes tended to pull the pants down at the waist toward the curve of the knees.
The pants handles were moved to the outside of each knee in the third prototype and were covered with flaps to prevent snagging (photo 4). The jacket handles in this version were still positioned beneath the arms, but they were eventually moved to the shoulders, and smaller-diameter nylon webbing replaced the original two-inch webbing for all handles (photo 5).
We first began testing the prototype grab-and-go turnouts for weight distribution and other factors in December 2006. The results were encouraging: The handles eliminated the need to tie slings, put webbing around firefighters, or adjust SCBA waist straps to create a lift/drag harness. All rescuers had to do was lift the hook-and-loop enclosures, grab the handles, and carry the incapacitated firefighter out (photo 6).
After this, we conducted blind informal tests comparing the time required from the moment of discovery to preparation and removal of a downed firefighter using various rapid intervention methods. The grab-and-go was timed against the following methods: dragging using hose strap; carrying using a red webbing sling, carrying using a debris bag, and dragging using a rapid intervention strap.
Participants were selected at random from whoever was assigned to the participating units that day, regardless of their training level in specific rapid intervention methods.
Smoke machines would simulate reduced visibility, and firefighters’ hoods would be pulled over their SCBA masks to simulate zero visibility.
The “downed” firefighter would preferably be around six feet tall and weigh about 200 pounds without PPE and would wear full PPE for the test.
Rescuers would have to carry or pull the victim about 70 feet in a straight line (no turning around aisles or other obstacles).
Timing would start when the RIT located and touched the downed firefighter and stop when they had removed him the 70-foot distance to safety.
Although these were not strictly scientific tests, they used the same basic parameters and were conducted in a variety of buildings involving multiple battalions.
We were primarily interested in finding out in a reasonable time whether grab-and-go handles actually made securing a downed firefighter for carrying or dragging out of the heat and smoke and into a safe location with fresh air easier and faster. After all, any one of us could at some time be the downed firefighter.
Right from the beginning, the results were positive for the grab-and-go handle system, typically cutting the time of removal in half or much better. In no instance did the removal time using the grab-and-go system exceed that of any of the other rescue methods. In all test cases, using the grab-and-go was fastest in removing downed firefighters, often cutting the time by two-thirds. This was not a surprise, since the rescuers had only to pull the flap open, grab the handles, and drag or carry the downed firefighter (Table 1).
The average time required for the overall evolution—finding, securing, and removing the downed firefighter using the rapid intervention strap, a hose strap, a red webbing sling, or a debris bag—ranged from eight to 11 minutes. Crews using the prototype grab-and-go turnouts with the built-in handles typically required between five and six minutes from start to finish. The reduced times appear to result from knowing where the grab-and-go handles were located on the prototype turnouts, grabbing the handles, and lifting or pulling the firefighter to safety. In comparison, other methods seemed slow and somewhat cumbersome, requiring rescuers to manipulate the firefighter to find a place to attach webbing or other rescue materials.
At that time, LACoFD turnouts were not equipped with DRDs, since the NFPA 1971 standard revision was still undergoing approval, so we could not include the standard DRD strap in the test. Since then, the entire department has been outfitted with turnouts incorporating the standard DRD handles. However, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department and other agencies have already thoroughly tested the standard DRD and demonstrated its effectiveness as a readily available mechanism for dragging downed firefighters across horizontal surfaces.
The results were similar in testing subsequently conducted with three other battalions, which verified the efficacy of the grab-and-go system in drastically cutting the time of downed firefighter removal. Based on these admittedly unscientific observations, one can reasonably ask the question: Is there anything faster for getting you out of a burning building when you’re incapacitated than a system of easily accessible handles already built into your turnouts, with pull tabs for easy grasping, which allows the rescuers to simply grab and go with you, especially when furniture, hoselines, and debris piles force rescuers to pick up the victim and carry him over them?
Based on the results of these informal tests, there’s good reason to believe that repeating them anywhere, with randomly selected firefighters, using approximately the same parameters, will yield similar results. The design group feels a third party should conduct additional scientific, unbiased studies with a wider spectrum of participants to better quantify the time savings on the grab-and-go system and other methods.
IS A COMBINED DRD SYSTEM MOST EFFECTIVE?
Based on research and the aforementioned testing, the design group feels that a combination system (the standard DRD combined with the grab-and-go handles) would be most effective in removing incapacitated firefighters in a timely manner. One manufacturer involved in this process is now producing the concept as a “configurable DRD system.”
In the future, it would be a positive step to present to the NFPA 1971 committee a proposal to consider the efficacy of grab-and-go handles or a configurable DRD system like that described here. If an unbiased scientific study demonstrates that a combined grab-and-go and DRD system is effective in allowing downed firefighters to be dragged, carried, lowered vertically, and raised vertically in a timely manner, without the need for any external device, it could potentially result in discussion of amending the NFPA 1971 standard accordingly.
As with any new development or technology, there will be certain questions until it’s proven itself in widespread field use. But based on our original theory that installing handles into the shoulders and knees of turnouts will expedite the removal of downed firefighters and the testing that has followed, this concept holds considerable promise for the future. It’s another example of the spirit of innovation and collaboration that makes the fire service a consistent leader in public service.
LARRY COLLINS is a 28-year member of the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department (LACoFD); a captain; and a USAR specialist and paramedic assigned to USAR Task Force 103, which responds to technical rescues and multialarm fires across Los Angeles County. He is a search team manager for LACoFD’s FEMA/OFDA US&R Task Force for domestic and international response and has served as an US&R specialist on the “Red” FEMA US&R Incident Support Team (with deployments to the Oklahoma City bombing; the 9/11 Pentagon collapse; Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, Dennis, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma; and several national security events). He is a frequent contributor to Fire Engineering and is the author of Technical Rescue Operations, Volumes I and II (Fire Engineering, 2004, 2005, respectively), the Rescue chapter of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Sixth Edition (Fire Engineering, 2003), and the Rescue chapter of Handbook for Firefighter I and II(Fire Engineering, soon to be released).