BY KEVIN W. MUNSON JR. AND JOHN H. OATES
Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) skills have progressed rapidly since the introduction and acceleration of the RIT concept. There are a number of techniques, tricks, and other methods for removing downed firefighters. All the techniques we have seen lack one crucial elementsimplicity. As we examined our medium-sized metropolitan department, we were left with this painful conclusion: As a whole, we were ill-prepared to handle the worst-case fireground scenario of a downed firefighter. We are fairly certain that our department is not alone in this dilemma. Although we trained our members in a variety of techniques and have identified solutions and methods, we still didn’t seem to have the confidence that a potential RIT deployment would be successful.
The skills discussed here are not intended to replace the traditional skills being taught to firefighters. They are meant to enhance the training and provide an alternative to the labor-intensive skills we are currently performing. In a department with a finite number of personnel for rapid intervention, it is important that we continue to do more with less. This does not negate the need to lobby for appropriate staffing to handle all fireground functions. As most of you know, however, the wheels of progress turn excruciatingly slow in most municipalities. The skills in this article are a by-product of trying to streamline our own department’s rapid intervention deployments.
During time trials performed in our live-fire training facility, these skills provided a four-person RIT crew with an alternative method for downed firefighter removal. In all of the trials, there was a drastic reduction in removal time using the methods described in this article. All the crews that participated in our trials had a brief two-hour demonstration of the technique. By no means are we naïve enough to think this will be the case for every fire department. We were, however, compelled to share our results in the hope that another department may benefit from our experiments.
Personal gain or loss is always a good motivator, so ask yourself this simple question: Do you feel comfortable that every member of your department can perform the skills necessary to get you out? We are not referring to the A-Team or the group of firefighters you would unquestionably trust with your life, but every member. If you feel that not everyone can perform the skills required, then that is a serious problem.
Somebody smarter than us (I think it was the late, great Tom Brennan) once said that we aren’t dying because we messed up Hazmat 462 or Trench 311 or even Extrication 230. We’re dying (as an industry) because of basic failures at Ladder 1, Hose 2, and Building Construction 1. If we can’t master these basic Firefighter 1 first-day-in-recruit-class skills, how can we think that our members will execute the fire service equivalent of the triple-lindy when one of our members gets stuck?
With that thought in mind, the first thing we did was look at the current rapid intervention skills, their essential elements, and the desired outcomes of performing these skills. An example is the Denver Maneuvera technique for removing a firefighter from the interior of the structure through a restricted or otherwise unusually shaped window opening (a high windowsill, for example). This is a very physically demanding maneuver and requires a fair amount of training and coordination among the members. Let’s also look at the case of a firefighter who has fallen through a hole in the floor. The current skill set for that situation is a handcuff knot with four (or more) firefighters pulling the individual straight up through the hole. Not much skill is required, but you will need quite a bit of brute strength and staffing. These are just a couple of the skills we evaluated, and each indicated a level of complexity was involved to accomplish itdifficult enough to cause us to worry about its being accomplished in a timely fashion under brutal circumstances.
Next, we reviewed our typical available resources. We have an on-duty staff of 20 firefighters distributed over five companies and one chief officer in a command vehicle. Our typical complement of RIT personnel is one officer and three firefighters. Some would argue this is adequate; others are adamant that at least six (or more) are needed. Our own evaluation run in a vacant auto dealership indicated that this was enough personnel to begin an evolution but not enough to complete the task because of fatigue, air consumption, and other factors. With all things being considered, we are not able to initially dedicate more than four personnel for rapid intervention.
NECESSARY ELEMENTS OF RAPID INTERVENTION SKILLS
As we evaluated all of these factors, we looked at what skills four personnel could sufficiently perform with relative ease and repeatability. We developed the following short list:
- The skills had to be easily reproducible. In other words, we teach a skill once, practice it, and then are fairly sure that the department members could reproduce it again at a later date.
- The skills had to be achieved with minimal equipment, and that equipment preferably should be items carried on every apparatus.
- The skills also had to be easy to teach. Company officers are required to do more and more training, and we had to be certain these skills could be easily taught.
- The skills had to work. There are a lot of gimmicks out there. Before we finalized our techniques, we had to make sure they worked over and over again.
These skills are not an everyday let’s-try-this-for-everything, one-size-fits-all solution. These skills are designed as emergency removal skills. They work only if you’re using an SCBA that has a positively locking waist strap. A belay line must be used during each training evolution in which a firefighter is suspended. Securely attach the belay line to the firefighter, not to the SCBA. A quick note on the SCBA: Although not endorsed by SCBA manufacturers, these are skills we need to be able to perform. If you are using an SCBA with a plastic waist buckle, you must use another method of hauling a downed firefighter. The reality of the situation is, if it gets you out of a situation that impaired your ability to escape, I don’t think anyone will be complaining. The skill, by itself, is not unsafe.
Obviously, none of the techniques mentioned in this article can be performed in an untenable environment. Unfortunately, neither can any conventional methods. As with any RIT operation, standard safety and survival skills apply. You must perform a risk-benefit analysis regardless of the method of removal you employ. Part of this analysis needs to include the fire conditions in the area of the downed member. Perhaps dedicating suppression crews to the area to control the fire is necessary before committing RIT crews.
This is a tool for your toolbox. It will work for a lot of different things but is not the be-all and end-all of rapid intervention. All of the traditional rapid intervention skills still apply.
HOW IT WORKS
We configured a rope bag out of simple equipment we were carrying on our apparatus. We have since purchased a dedicated RIT bag with RIT response rope and assign it as part of the initial RIT equipment cache. This bag can be deployed for many different evolutions; its uses are limited only by your imagination. The bag consists of 200 feet of static aramid sheathed kernmantle rope, one large carabiner, one extra-large carabiner (or one teardrop-shaped auto-locking carabiner), and two single-sheave two-inch pulleys. In an ideal world, the pulleys would be unnecessary; however, the friction was just too much to overcome.
The rope bag is assembled and packed in the following manner (photos 1, 2):
- Form a loose double-looped figure eight on a bight on the terminal end of the rope.
- Place a large carabiner on one loop of the eight.
- Start working away from the double-loop eight; place a pulley and the large teardrop carabiner (this goes to the downed firefighter) on the rope.
- Place a second pulley and the remaining large carabiner on the rope.
- Carefully pack this assembly on the top of the rope bag. Leave the large carabiner outside the bag with the double-loop eight inside.
- If you use all carabiners of the same size, label your pulleys as “up” and “down” or “anchor” and “firefighter.”
(1) Photos courtesy of author.
VERTICAL REMOVAL THROUGH A HOLE IN THE FLOOR
We attempted to remove a downed firefighter through a hole in the floor using the traditional handcuff knot and four firefighters. If a skilled crew practiced and performed this technique, they were able to remove the downed member. An alternative to this maneuver is to use the bag discussed above and a combination A-frame ladder.
First, we send two RIT firefighters to assess the downed member. You can do this in different ways. The easiest method is to use an intact staircase to access the downed firefighter. If that is not possible, use a collapsible closet ladder. As a last resort, you can lower a RIT firefighter on the system you are going to use for removal. Take some time to size up the area where the downed firefighter went through the floor. If the firefighter is still wedged in the floor, this method will not work. Imagine a plastic wire tie; it is easy to operate in one direction and impossible (without catastrophic results) in the other. That is essentially what is happening when a firefighter gets wedged in a partial collapse. Very large openings (where ladder placement is impossible) will be discussed later.
While the two RIT firefighters are assessing the downed firefighter, the A-frame ladder is set over the hole and extended as high as possible. Next, the firefighters at the top deploy the RIT bag in the following manner:
- Remove the double-loop figure eight and extend it to the top of the ladder.
- From the center of the ladder, start wrapping the two topmost rungs of the ladder. Essentially, you are putting a tensionless hitch on the top of the ladder. We found that three wraps work best.
- Once you have the three wraps, clip the large carabiner (without a pulley) back on the rope (photo 3). Attempt to keep the double-loop figure eight as close to the anchor point as possible. This will affect how high you are able to raise the downed firefighter.
- Lower the extra-large (or teardrop) carabiner and pulley to the RIT firefighters below.
- When enough rope is played out, attach the remaining pulley and carabiner to the unused loop of the double-loop figure eight. You now should have a tensionless hitch with a two-to-one mechanical advantage system and a change of direction (photo 4). The change of direction is important to help achieve the height necessary to get the downed firefighter past the edge of the hole. It sounds complicated, but after deploying it once, most of our firefighters were able to reproduce the system with no prompting.
While we were performing this at the top of the space, the RIT firefighters in the hole were converting the downed firefighter’s SCBA into a harness.
When the extra-large carabiner is lowered, it is hooked through the top of both shoulder straps where it attaches to the frame. If you can hook only one strap, it will work, but the firefighter may come out of the hole in a manner that would wedge him in the opening.
The two firefighters at the top of the space begin hauling on the system. One RIT firefighter in the hole assists the downed firefighter through the opening and guides him past any obstacles he might encounter while the other firefighter in the hole can assist with the haul. You must maintain a pull close to the hole near the base of the A-frame ladder. If you begin to move your pull away from the base of the ladder, the angle will naturally make the ladder unstable. The two firefighters at the top have to work together during the haul to attain maximum efficiency.
Once the downed firefighter has gotten to the point where the rope system collapses, simply grab the shoulder strap of the SCBA and pull. When you do this, the ladder will follow and the two will fall to the side of the hole (photo 5). Make every attempt to maintain control of both the firefighter and the ladder. If you do not maintain control of the ladder as you pull the firefighter, the ladder may injure the members as it falls.
Once at the top of the space, disconnect the system and move the firefighter as you normally would. The two RIT firefighters in the hole can be removed in the same manner they entered.
If the hole in the floor is too big or if the collapse does not allow placement of a ladder, try to use the joists above (floor or ceiling, depending on what floor you are on) as an anchor point (photo 6). Simply wrap the terminal end of the rope around one or more joists to create a tensionless hitch.
Yet another option is to use a window header as your anchor point. If you are on the top floor and the building has an overhang, you can punch a hole in the ceiling above the window and wrap the rope around the entire window header by passing the rope through the hole you made and bringing it out through the soffit. The rest of the technique is the same once you have acquired an anchor point.
VERTICAL REMOVAL THROUGH AN UPPER-FLOOR WINDOW OPENING
The next evolution we attempted was to remove a firefighter from an upper-floor window of any size. This maneuver is an alternative to lifting the firefighter onto the sill and removing him by way of a ground ladder. The major disadvantage of the latter is that you typically have to remove the firefighter’s SCBA before he is on the ladder. Once the downed firefighter is located and it is determined that he will need to be removed by window, two members of the RIT crew should begin setting up the system on the outside of the building. (If staffing allows, an outside crew can set up the system, allowing the four-person RIT crew to continue working inside the building.)
The other two RIT members assess the downed firefighter and begin converting the downed firefighter’s SCBA into a harness. Place a ground ladder on the outside of the building above the top of the window. Once the ladder is in place, deploy the RIT bag. Carry the double-loop figure eight up the ladder. Again, place a tensionless hitch on the top two rungs. When three (or more) wraps are achieved, clip the large carabiner back onto the rope. Pass the extra-large (or teardrop) carabiner and pulley into the window (if the other two members of the RIT team are not there yet, place it into the window). Clip the other large carabiner and pulley to the other loop of the figure eight (photo 7). Alternatively, you can rig the system on the ground by extending the ladder a couple of rungs and raising it prerigged (photo 8).
On the inside, the RIT members can hook the downed firefighter up at any point. Once connected, the outside crew can help with the drag. When they get to the window, they alert the outside crew that the downed firefighter is at the window. Simply by using their body weight, the two outside firefighters can lift the downed firefighter out of the window and clear of the sill (photos 9, 10). A quick note on safety: Once the downed firefighter is out of the window, the haul team must maintain control of the rope, as there is no system brake. As mentioned before, when suspending a firefighter in training, you must use a belay line. To help assist in the lowering, you can pass the rope through the fourth rung and back through the bottom rung. This will allow you to use the friction of the rungs to lower but also keep the tension holding the ladder into the building (photo 11).
Another evolution we tried is dragging the downed firefighter down a long hallway or an open space. Have a firefighter sit in a doorway and place both feet against the door frame or other substantial object. Hook the system to a ladder belt or some other type of harness. If your department does not use harnesses, wrap the terminal end of the rope around your body and clip the carabiner back onto the rope. This will essentially make a tensionless hitch around your body. Attach the teardrop carabiner around both shoulder straps of the downed firefighter’s SCBA. You can leave the extra carabiner and pulley in the bag or anywhere convenient; it is not used in this evolution. Pull the rope toward you; one firefighter can successfully move a downed member (photo 12).
Note: If you do not have another RIT member to guide the downed firefighter around obstacles, you will defeat the purpose of the mechanical advantage you are generating. This works well only in large, unobstructed areas (the aisle of a grocery store, for example).
A variation of the current method for moving a firefighter up and down stairs includes using the system anchored at the top of the stairs. You can be creative and use anything to create an anchor point. A halligan driven into the corner of the door frame or a hook used across the top of the door will work as an improvised anchor point. Remove the gypsum board from the door header, and wrap the header of the door. The anchor point will not be used to lift the entire weight of the downed firefighter but will assist in getting him over the stair treads. This works well but needs to be communicated and practiced. In our experience, this was not quite as effective as the conventional methods and, in some cases, added time to the removal. Our results for stairs were far less promising than with the previous mentioned scenarios.
We are not offering these skills as a replacement for your current RIT skill set. In our experiments, removing a firefighter was performed more quickly in these circumstances, using these skills. In some instances where a crew struggled with conventional methods of removal, they were able to remove the downed firefighter with ease using the techniques mentioned here. As with all techniques and skills, all members need to practice and embrace them. It is critical for the success of rapid intervention to have a top-down buy-in. The skills must be practiced departmentwide to be effective. Good standard operating procedures and training are paramount to successful RIT evolutions.
Thanks to the officers and members of the West Hartford (CT) Fire Department, particularly Quint 3, Groups 2 and 4, and to the chief officers for the administrative support to work on this project.
KEVIN W. MUNSON JR.has been in the fire service for 15 years and serves as apparatus operator for the West Hartford (CT) Fire Department. He is a National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications-certified instructor and an adjunct instructor for the Connecticut Fire Academy, where he develops curriculum for technical rescue and hazardous materials programs. He is also an instructor for VNZ Rescue Services of Watertown, CT, and the program development director for Emergency Training Solutions of Harwinton, Connecticut. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in emergency services management from Empire State College (SUNY). He has many state and national technical certifications.
JOHN H. OATES,EFO, is chief of the East Hartford (CT) Fire Department. He is also an adjunct instructor for the Connecticut Fire Academy and serves as the chair of the National Fire Protection Association 610 Technical Committee. He is active in the NFFF Courage to be Safe program.