Fire departments nation-wide are struggling with the implementation of rapid intervention. This struggle is not based on need-we all know we need rapid intervention. The difficulty is caused by the mindset of many firefighters when they receive a rapid intervention team (RIT) assignment.
Rapid intervention should no longer be assigned to a company out of convenience or just to satisfy departmental operational plans. It should be assigned with full knowledge of the capabilities of the company officer and his company. Here is the “friction”: Many firefighters believe they are more effective when assigned a function like fire attack or search and rescue; most believe their abilities are wasted when assigned to rapid intervention.
I’m not sure trapped firefighters would be encouraged by a weaker company being assigned to rapid intervention; they would want the most experienced and toughest company to rescue them if the need arises. The modern fire service has to change its thinking, starting with departmental leaders. The negative label attached to RIT must be dismissed by incident commanders, and our culture must change.
We have all had near-misses that can be attributed to nothing but luck or faith. I have experience with rapid intervention, both directly and within my department, and would like to share two incidents with you.
RIT REPONDS TO FLOOR COLLAPSE
It was a cold March morning at approximately 2 a.m. several years ago. A typical house fire call in an older neighborhood summoned four engine companies, one ladder, and a district chief. On arrival, the first-in company reported heavy fire issuing from a two-story wood-frame home. They passed command to engage in fire attack.
I was serving as the intern to the district chief. We arrived shortly after the first engine company and set up command. The incident commander (IC) immediately assigned me to the function of safety officer, which is typical for the Tulsa (OK) Fire Department. The district chief and I knew, from other responses in this neighborhood, that the home would be of ordinary balloon-frame construction. The layout of the building was a duplex with one unit occupying one half of the lower floor and the other unit encompassing the other half of the downstairs and all of the upstairs.
The fire originated in and engulfed the smaller duplex unit downstairs. It was burning with such intensity that the first company had to knock it down from the outside to enter. The second engine company arrived and was assigned to fire attack, creating a group of two companies on attack. All functions were assigned, including a rapid intervention crew.
The crews quickly knocked down the main body of the fire and entered the other side of the duplex to access the area above the fire to check for extension upstairs. We were not making use of our thermal imaging equipment at this point in the incident (our district chiefs’ cars carry handheld units). As the safety officer, I stood on the front porch ensuring use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by our firefighters and watched for sagging or other structural problems. Suddenly, I heard a loud thud that I actually felt in my feet and saw what I believed was dust coming out the front door of the downstairs duplex. I had that sinking feeling in my gut and began to evaluate what had happened.
I peered through the open door and could see the emergency lights from one of the on-scene apparatus mirroring in the reflective strips of what I knew was bunker gear inside the structure. At this point, I realized some type of collapse had occurred and notified the IC to send in the RIT. Activities began to happen very quickly but seemed to be in slow motion. The RIT entered the structure along with other firefighters operating at the incident.
The collapse resulted from crews entering the upstairs area. The entire floor of the upstairs room collapsed, and two company officers fell approximately 12 feet, in a lean-to collapse, to the first floor. They were covered by all of the items in the second-story bedroom. It became a surreal moment as the carpet remained attached to the baseboards, creating a strange visual image. In the darkness and with the missing floor, it actually appeared to be a wall. Both of the firefighters who fell through the floor were injured and lost time as a result of their injuries.
We learned some valuable lessons operating at this incident, including
- Every firefighter must be mentally prepared for things to go terribly wrong during every incident. Practice how you will respond; don’t let your skills become dull. Our RIT did everything it was trained to do, but the sick feeling in our guts did not go away until we had extricated both firefighters from the structure.
- Don’t run into the collapse scene and yank your victims out unless they are in imminent danger from fire or another collapse. We took the time to package our victims to ensure we did not injure them further.
- Train with your thermal imaging camera if you have one; if you don’t have one, get one. This training should be conducted in nonemergency situations as well as on the job. After the smoke cleared in this incident, you could clearly see that the ceiling gypsum board had been stripped away for remodeling, something we would have noticed had we used the thermal device.
CAPTAIN FALLS TO BASEMENT WITHOUT HIS RADIO
Our department had another near-miss last year. This incident seemed like a routine fire call, but it turned ugly very quickly.
A normal assignment of five engine companies, two ladders, and a district chief was dispatched to a structure fire. It was a cool evening in November. The incident involved a two-story, 50-year-old home of ordinary construction with a full basement (a full basement was common to the homes in the area and was a concern for the fire companies who responded).
On arrival, the first-in engine company reported heavy fire issuing from the structure and initiated fire attack. The first-in company officer was a fire equipment operator acting as the captain. He has solid experience and was very fortunate to have had good captains as he developed in his career. The man I’m speaking of played college and professional football-he’s a big guy. He actually forgot his portable radio when he exited the apparatus and did not have any way to communicate with command.
The district chief arrived shortly thereafter, established command, and began to assign the functions of the incident command system (ICS). In Tulsa, we have tactical channels assigned to each district, and the assignment in this incident was directed by the district chief to switch to the district channel. The district chief’s intern was assigned as the incident safety officer. The safety officer did not change the channel on his portable radio to the district tactical channel and did not immediately realize he was not in communication with incident command.
Two to three minutes after entering the house, the main body of the fire was knocked down by fire attack. The acting captain noted a small amount of fire in the corner of the living room and went over to investigate. He inspected the small fire in the corner. When returning to his firefighter, he heard a loud crack, and the floor went away. He fell from the main floor, with debris following him down, into the basement without a hoseline and without a radio. His crewmate was a rookie; thank goodness, he hung tough.
The rookie began to try to communicate with his acting captain. The officer was injured and in a basement full of fire. He had his gear torn off in the fall, including his gloves, boots, and SCBA. His firefighter passed the line down so he could protect himself. The incident safety officer was notified verbally but was operating on the wrong channel, delaying rapid intervention. Adding difficulty to the rescue was the fact that the officer was 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 300 pounds-no one was going to grab him and pull him up. His injuries included a torn bicep and ligament damage to one of his knees.
Following removal from the structure, the acting captain realized his injuries. The officer was feeling many emotions, including anger, frustration, anxiety, and defeat. I spoke to him the other day. He is preparing for the captain’s exam and using this experience as a learning tool, noting the problems to prevent them in the future.
This incident also came with lessons learned. Communication is critical, along with everyone’s being on the same page. Preparation also is a critical criterion for a RIT. None of us want to have any of our firefighters seriously injured or pay the ultimate price in the performance of their job. Another lesson learned is to always keep your guard up throughout any incident.
PREPARING FOR ALL CONTINGENCIES
A pattern does exist in incidents requiring rapid intervention. No incident is perfect from an operational or command standpoint, and mistakes are made. When these mistakes begin to stack up, a situation that can harm us can easily be created. Also, incidents that are going well can quickly become unmanageable-there is no magic formula. We should all plan for the worst-case scenario in any incident, every time.
Our department has made changes following the incidents described above. All engine and ladder companies now are equipped with a radio for each individual. This creates a failsafe situation. Communications are critical when things go bad. I believe every firefighter death results from some level of miscommunication.
We also have units that provide breathing air, lighting, cool mist fans, and-more importantly-rapid intervention packs. These packs contain the items needed to rescue trapped or injured firefighters. Tag lines are contained in the packs along with cylinders of breathing air. Our department is replacing our current SCBAs with units with integrated pass devices and the capability to breath air from the cylinders contained in the rapid intervention packs. Why did we make these changes? There were many reasons. We had some near-misses. We have a safety officer who is proactive and very involved. Our safety officer also recognized the need to integrate PASS devices. Unfortunately, we sometimes are our own worst enemy. A PASS device can save your life: Arm it every time, every incident.
Our communications officer pushed funding for dual-use radios through the budget process. Our training officers pushed from their training division for the packs. We are now better prepared, both from a mental and equipment standpoint.
RIT THINKING: MAKE IT A WAY OF LIFE
I implore you to develop rapid intervention thinking as a way of life and eliminate the friction internally and between crews that can result from being assigned to rapid intervention.
Never assume or believe that any incident is routine-always plan for, and expect, everything to go bad. You must be prepared for these problems with a solid backup plan. I want the toughest and most experienced crew assigned to rapid intervention if a collapse occurs while I’m inside.
The friction I have described can be avoided by touting the importance of the RIT. Case studies also can be used to prove how important this function is to your personnel. Training your personnel and equipping them with the tools they need to operate in a rapid intervention situation also will aid in changing your organizational culture to the point of embracing this function.
Keep in mind, the only people on the face of the earth trained to rescue firefighters from a burning building involved in a collapse situation are other firefighters.
SCOTT CLARK is district chief of the Tulsa (OK) Fire Department.