Searching for a Conscious Lost Firefighter


Until recently, all of our lost firefighter rescue drills involved an unresponsive firefighter whose PASS alarm was activating. The rapid intervention team (RIT) used the activated PASS to locate and remove the downed firefighter. However, the Painesville (OH) Township Fire Department recently trained in a vacant commercial occupancy and attempted to locate and remove a conscious firefighter who was lost and actively trying to extricate himself from the building. When we developed this scenario, I was not sure it could be done in the time frame we set for the drill using only one RIT. We decided that 20 minutes would be the maximum amount of time the scenario would run. This would simulate a firefighter who had about 50 percent of his air supply left (in a 45-minute bottle). Our goal was to locate the firefighter and lead him out within our 20-minute time frame and figure out tactically what worked and what did not.


The building we drilled in is a long, vacant, 68,000-square-foot commercial building of Type II construction. It was originally used as a grocery store and then converted to a fitness center before becoming vacant. Several interior additions were needed to transform the grocery store into a fitness center. The building’s front two-thirds were remodeled for the fitness center; the rear third was mostly as it was when it was a grocery store. Offices, large male and female locker rooms, showers, a day care center, an aerobics room, and a massage center were all present. In the middle of all these rooms was a large open floor space area. The rear of the store still had compressor rooms, utility rooms, loading docks, and a butcher shop area. The different uses for all these rooms allowed us to operate in an occupancy with four different floor types. The aerobics room had a wood floor, the locker rooms had tile floors, the workout area had linoleum floors, and the rear of the store had concrete floors.


Since none of us had any experience performing this operation, we wanted to accomplish the following five goals:

1 See if it can be done. Can a RIT and a lost firefighter work together to find each other in a large occupancy under zero-visibility conditions in an acceptable time frame?
2 Develop the skills needed for this operation and figure out what not to try ahead of time.
3 Give each member the experience of being disoriented in a large structure and experience in realistic Mayday transmissions while maintaining composure.
4 Give each member experience as a RIT taking control and facilitating all aspects of a lost firefighter rescue.
5 Air management—the RIT is advised to monitor consumption and terminate the rescue effort based on air projection regardless of how much time is left in the evolution. It is stressed that if the RIT runs out of air before exiting the building, members are considered line-of-duty deaths. The lost firefighter is also advised that if he runs out of air prior to the 20-minute mark, the drill is terminated. They must monitor their air and make a decision based on their air consumption, at which point they must transfer from a very aggressive mode (“I go here to get out of there”) to a more passive mode (“I am going to make this five minutes last 15 minutes by waiting for rescuers and controlling my breathing rate through skip breathing”).


A firefighter enters a rear door to this building, then gets separated from his crew and is lost in the building. The firefighter transmits a Mayday, and the RIT is dispatched from the front of the building, where the RIT was staged.


All firefighters black out their SCBA face pieces with painter’s tape to simulate zero visibility during the drill, are radio equipped, and are required to carry hand tools. The RIT firefighters use a 200-foot lifeline anchored to their entry point. All participating firefighters, including the victim, don their face pieces and go on air from the starting point at the front of the store. The lost firefighter is then led blind from the front of the building to the rear. The firefighter’s route goes through the store and involves as many rooms with as many twists and turns as possible. The firefighter is stopped twice during the trek across the store and turned around in a circle numerous times to help with the disorientation.


Once the lost firefighter is in the rear of the store, he kneels down and is told which rear door he entered through with his crew; he needs to know this because he was brought through the front to help disorient him. This information is vital to the drill’s execution. The firefighter then transmits his Mayday to Command. The time starts on the Mayday’s transmission. Command then dispatches the RIT from the staging area in the front of the store. The RIT now takes over all communications with the lost firefighter and has total control over the rescue effort.


The first four times we ran this drill we were successful in finding and removing the lost firefighter. In the initial drill, it took nine minutes and 52 seconds to make contact with the lost firefighter and three minutes and 17 seconds for the lost firefighter and the RIT to exit the building. Total time for the initial drill from Mayday to completion was 13 minutes and nine seconds. Using the techniques developed during the initial drill and having the advantage of watching the first run, the second team completed the drill in a total time of eight minutes and 17 seconds. The third and fourth drill times were completed in 13 minutes and 17 seconds and 14 minutes and 21 seconds, respectively. The times for these first drills are arbitrary because the victim was in a different place for all four drills in the rear third of the building. The important thing was that we completed all four drills under the 20-minute goal.


1 Once Command dispatches the RIT and RIT members make entry, they must first establish communications with the lost firefighter by radio. Once communication is established, they must reassure the lost firefighter and gather information that they may not have received from Command. At this point, they must tell the firefighter that when they talk on the radio, he needs to stop moving so he can concentrate on directions. Command must also know the firefighter’s status (physical, mental, and his air supply) and his entry point (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and so on). The RIT members will use this information to help initially grid the firefighter’s location in the building, and it gives them initial travel direction based on their entry point.

2 Once communication is established and the RIT team has attempted to calm the lost firefighter with some reassurance, the firefighter is to sound his PASS alarm for 30 seconds. We use 30-second PASS bursts for this drill to maintain radio and, later, verbal communication. After this initial burst, the RIT should be able to place the lost firefighter in a generalized sector. At this point, the RIT members tell the lost firefighter what sector (A/B, B/C, C/D, or A/D) they believe he is in and their entry point to give him a reference. Because the firefighter is still disoriented, this information does not help him, but it eventually will.

3 One of the first things the lost firefighter should do after sending his Mayday is get to a wall; this is his means of egress. Rescuers will use the walls as they work their way in to help him. We teach our firefighters that if they are lost in a large building with a concrete floor, they should run a hand along the floor to feel for an expansion joint. At the end of most expansion joints will be a wall.

4 Now that we believe we know the lost firefighter’s general location (right of us, left of us, and so on), we need to get the firefighter moving in our direction by activating a RIT member’s PASS. We have integrated PASS alarms in our SCBA back plate, which is more effective if the member activating his PASS turns around so it faces the direction we believe the lost firefighter to be in. This also helps limit the PASS’s sound bounce (off walls and ceilings), which can be disorienting in large structures. With this information, the lost firefighter knows our entry point and his possible location in the building, and the sound of the activated PASS confirms his direction of travel.

5 Reinforce communication discipline. The RIT and lost firefighter may rush because they knew they had a finite amount of time to complete the evolution (just like in real life). Consequently, we would have communication breakdowns. Firefighters would not wait for each other’s acknowledgment before reacting. Remember, for effective communication, the message has to be received and acknowledged. Firefighters were not listening to the completed radio messages before moving, or the sender was moving when the receiver did not get the message. This increased evolution time because messages had to be sent two or three times before any compliance. The other communication problem we had was that if questions were not answered correctly, the sender at times would not resend the message for clarification. For example, when the RIT members asked the lost firefighter which door he entered to help grid his location, he answered, “I am lost in the rear of the building.” The RIT then radioed, “10-4.” They needed to know the lost firefighter’s entry point because this helps grid the firefighter in the building based on their PASS activation. The RIT should have resent the message more forcefully, stating, “What door did you enter from? We know you are in the rear of the building.”

6 The PASS activation works well when you and the other firefighter are a great distance apart, but as you close the gap, striking your tool on the floor and yelling are more effective the closer you get (photo 1). In one instance, the lost firefighter ended up in the aerobics room with the wood floor. The wood floor made very little noise when struck with an ax; the firefighter smartly recognized this, and he aggressively worked his way off the wood floor and back onto the concrete. This significantly reduced the time it took his rescuers to find him because they were close enough to immediately hear his ax striking the floor.

1) Photos by author.

7 The RIT and the lost firefighter should alternate between PASS activations and yelling and striking the floor. This alternating of sounds helps more than just a constant sound. The lost firefighter should not leave his PASS on while attempting to escape for the following reasons:

  • The ability to communicate with a portable radio is lost.
  • Because the firefighter is moving, it is very confusing for the firefighters trying to home in on the sound.
  • The short burst tells you which way to go and at periodic intervals based on the RIT or lost firefighter’s requests to stop moving and reactivate it. This reaffirms that you are going the right way. The member activating the PASS must stand fast during the activation and, if applicable, aim the PASS in the direction of the other firefighter they are trying to link up with.

    8 In the beginning of these initial drills, junior members continued to operate as if they were performing a search while working toward the RIT. We had firefighters who were a considerable distance from their rescuers based how their PASS sounded, but they continued to move down a wall at a moderately slow speed and were still sweeping out with their tool as if searching a dwelling. You must remind your junior members that they are no longer looking for victims in these situations; they are trying to save their own lives. They need to move as fast as they can and as safely as they can and keep their tool out in front of them when feeling for holes and obstructions and moving down the wall toward rescuers (photo 2). On the second evolution, this same firefighter made an excellent adjustment to the critique given to him after the first drill. He covered 110 feet in excellent form while moving in the right direction in under 15 seconds, eventually running right into the RIT. One way for the RIT to secure a found lost firefighter is to tie him to a RIT member who is attached to the main search line with one-inch tubular webbing and a carabiner (photos 3-5).








    Performing these drills in a real-life situation is considerably harder and requires a tremendous amount of luck for both parties (RIT and the lost member) to be a success. And if the lost firefighter is low on air, it will be nearly impossible to get him out in a time frame that will make a difference in his survival. We always start out telling our firefighters that, from a statistical standpoint, they are four times more likely to die in a commercial occupancy than a dwelling (per National Fire Protection Association data).

    We stress that you cannot leave the hose or operate without a lifeline (rope) in anything larger than a dwelling and expect to survive if you get lost. We have changed the drill in an attempt to make it harder by having different entry points or playing a stereo in the middle of the occupancy to limit our ability to hear the PASS and communicate verbally. Even with these variations, we have been successful in finding and extricating the lost firefighter.

    By running this drill, we can develop techniques that work when the situation dictates it. If we ever experience a situation like this, we have already eliminated a lot of issues through trial and error. We know what to do to begin the operation; more importantly, if one of our members is lost, he knows what to do and what we expect from him. I firmly believe that by executing this drill, all members gain equal experience in being the RIT and being the victim.

    The experience of being lost in a large commercial occupancy is invaluable. You will be watched and given a chance to correct any mistakes you make at the next drill. In real life, you may not get a second chance.

    TOM SITZ is a lieutenant and 24-year veteran of the Painesville (OH) Township Fire Department. He is an instructor for Lakeland Community College in the fire science program and has developed several of the online classes. He also teaches for Auburn Career Center in the firefighter certification programs.

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