The Role of the Initial FAST Company

By DAVID DeSTEFANO

Firefighter assistance and search team (FAST) companies such as rapid intervention teams and crews have become commonplace on the modern fireground. Unfortunately, they are sometimes viewed as one-stop shopping for all the answers in firefighter rescue.

Reading reports on firefighter rescues (successful and otherwise) and the number of members and the amount of time it took to complete apparently simple rescues is a grim reality check for local incident commanders (ICs), firefighters, and company-level officers. What are a small fire department’s realistic capabilities when it establishes and engages a FAST company? What should the IC expect of his initial FAST company?

Most small departments can expect to assign or assemble a FAST company or team with two to four members. This may not be the staffing we want, but it’s a reality for most in the American fire service. We know we can keep striking alarms to add personnel, but reflex time will make assembling a larger team a time-consuming task. We need a guide for using these limited initial resources most efficiently within a realistic scope of work. ICs, company officers, and FAST company members can use the acronym APRIL to remember the proper steps to incident response.

Arrive early at the incident. Because Maydays can happen at any time during an incident, the FAST company must be an automatic special call on transmission of a working fire. To operate in a proactive mode, dispatch the FAST company on the initial alarm for fires receiving multiple calls or for certain structures or districts deemed especially hazardous.

Proactive posture. The FAST company must have immediate access to the basic equipment it may need. The equipment must arrive with the team on the rig or already be on-scene on another apparatus in close proximity to the fire. Nothing creates chaos like members scrambling from rig to rig trying to find the tools they need. Have an effective, preestablished equipment list for your staff. A three-member team shouldn’t be required to lug air bags, hydraulic tools, and three different saws as a cache for initial deployment. Small forces must travel light, or they run the risk of not moving at all.

Reasonable equipment for three or four members could include the following:

  • Thermal imaging camera.
  • Halligan.
  • Flathead ax.
  • Maul or sledgehammer.
  • Six-foot hook.
  • Rabbit tool or hydraulic hammer.
  • Search rope appropriate for the structure.
  • Saw suitable for most tasks in the particular type of construction.
  • Complete extra self-contained breathing apparatus, including mask, which the team can carry or drag in a basket stretcher to the staging area near the command post.

 

This unit should also have a handline capable of reaching the seat of the fire or the floor above, if needed. The chauffeur of the engine that stretches this line must stretch it far enough to dedicate enough water for FAST company use. In addition to the equipment cache, each FAST company member must carry the usual complement of pocket hardware including several light sources, a readily accessible knife, wire cutters, chocks, webbing, and a portable radio.

Continuing proactive posture beyond staging is the key to the most successful FAST company—the one that is never needed. If we can prevent a Mayday through simple proactive measures, then we are all safer. We can undertake some initial FAST company actions such as placing a ladder to the fire floor on the side opposite the fire and then informing Command of this action by radio so all operating companies will know this. We can assign other labor-intensive duties such as removing window bars, covers, and roll-down doors or enlarging access points to other units and have them periodically monitored by the FAST company officer.

Read the building/incident. Among the most important FAST company responsibilities is knowing the building. After staging a tool cache and reporting to the IC, the FAST company officer or, at his discretion, the entire company should rapidly size up the exterior around the fire building if the conditions and the building’s footprint allow. While conducting this survey, keep in mind the proactive tasks mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

If you need to open, enlarge, or ladder the access route, do it immediately. Plan for a worst-case scenario based on the building’s construction, volume of fire, and units operating inside the building. Anticipate the building’s potential layout based on visible outside features, preplan information, and knowledge of similar buildings in the area. While performing an exterior reconnaissance, closely monitor the radio not only for Mayday messages but for the flow of communications regarding the fire. What are the first-in companies saying in their situation reports?

Although firefighter emergencies can occur at any stage, be extra vigilant in marginal conditions. Always monitor the location of the most exposed companies. Often, the first-in engine; truck; and, possibly, several additional companies are stretching the first two lines, conducting the primary search, and performing vertical ventilation. Keeping tabs on the most dangerous positions may subtract critical minutes from the search time for a lost or trapped member.

Incident response. The most effective use of the initial two- to four-member FAST company is as a reconnaissance unit. The members must enter quickly and as near as possible to the point of the member’s last known Mayday transmission location and, on finding the member, must establish his level of consciousness and air supply. If the firefighter is conscious but is disoriented or very lightly entrapped, the team should be able to perform a rescue. However, if the firefighter is unconscious; heavily entrapped by debris; or has fallen through a hole, shaft, or burned-through stairs, the initial FAST company will not have the proper equipment or air supply to perform a prolonged rescue.

Leave complex rescues to the next team. Once you deploy the initial FAST company, the IC must call for additional resources. In most cases, striking an additional alarm is an appropriate response; it will provide adequate personnel to perform a significant rescue operation as well as a fresh FAST company. The initial FAST company must relay an accurate position; maintain the trapped firefighter’s air supply; and deploy a handline, if needed, to keep any nearby fire at bay. If air supply allows, the FAST company should remain with the trapped firefighter until relieved by the rescue team. Understanding the scope of work made possible by a small initial FAST company is key when you deploy this resource properly and safely.

If you use it proactively and back it up with the appropriate reinforcements on deployment, the average FAST company in many smaller fire departments is a tool with great capabilities. The IC should use the FAST company’s reconnaissance element to his advantage when attempting to find and rescue disoriented firefighters. However, he must also have additional resources on hand or, at least, en route on transmission of a Mayday.

DAVID DeSTEFANO is a 20-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department. He is also an instructor for the Rhode Island Fire Academy, where he teaches various topics including FAST company operations and a ladder company program that he codeveloped.

 

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The Role of the Initial FAST Company

By DAVID DeSTEFANO

Firefighter assistance and search team (FAST) companies such as rapid intervention teams and crews have become commonplace on the modern fireground. Unfortunately, they are sometimes viewed as one-stop shopping for all the answers in firefighter rescue.

Reading reports on firefighter rescues (successful and otherwise) and the number of members and the amount of time it took to complete apparently simple rescues is a grim reality check for local incident commanders (ICs), firefighters, and company-level officers. What are a small fire department’s realistic capabilities when it establishes and engages a FAST company? What should the IC expect of his initial FAST company?

Most small departments can expect to assign or assemble a FAST company or team with two to four members. This may not be the staffing we want, but it’s a reality for most in the American fire service. We know we can keep striking alarms to add personnel, but reflex time will make assembling a larger team a time-consuming task. We need a guide for using these limited initial resources most efficiently within a realistic scope of work. ICs, company officers, and FAST company members can use the acronym APRIL to remember the proper steps to incident response.

Arrive early at the incident. Because Maydays can happen at any time during an incident, the FAST company must be an automatic special call on transmission of a working fire. To operate in a proactive mode, dispatch the FAST company on the initial alarm for fires receiving multiple calls or for certain structures or districts deemed especially hazardous.

Proactive posture. The FAST company must have immediate access to the basic equipment it may need. The equipment must arrive with the team on the rig or already be on-scene on another apparatus in close proximity to the fire. Nothing creates chaos like members scrambling from rig to rig trying to find the tools they need. Have an effective, preestablished equipment list for your staff. A three-member team shouldn’t be required to lug air bags, hydraulic tools, and three different saws as a cache for initial deployment. Small forces must travel light, or they run the risk of not moving at all.

Reasonable equipment for three or four members could include the following:

  • Thermal imaging camera.
  • Halligan.
  • Flathead ax.
  • Maul or sledgehammer.
  • Six-foot hook.
  • Rabbit tool or hydraulic hammer.
  • Search rope appropriate for the structure.
  • Saw suitable for most tasks in the particular type of construction.
  • Complete extra self-contained breathing apparatus, including mask, which the team can carry or drag in a basket stretcher to the staging area near the command post.

 

This unit should also have a handline capable of reaching the seat of the fire or the floor above, if needed. The chauffeur of the engine that stretches this line must stretch it far enough to dedicate enough water for FAST company use. In addition to the equipment cache, each FAST company member must carry the usual complement of pocket hardware including several light sources, a readily accessible knife, wire cutters, chocks, webbing, and a portable radio.

Continuing proactive posture beyond staging is the key to the most successful FAST company—the one that is never needed. If we can prevent a Mayday through simple proactive measures, then we are all safer. We can undertake some initial FAST company actions such as placing a ladder to the fire floor on the side opposite the fire and then informing Command of this action by radio so all operating companies will know this. We can assign other labor-intensive duties such as removing window bars, covers, and roll-down doors or enlarging access points to other units and have them periodically monitored by the FAST company officer.

Read the building/incident. Among the most important FAST company responsibilities is knowing the building. After staging a tool cache and reporting to the IC, the FAST company officer or, at his discretion, the entire company should rapidly size up the exterior around the fire building if the conditions and the building’s footprint allow. While conducting this survey, keep in mind the proactive tasks mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

If you need to open, enlarge, or ladder the access route, do it immediately. Plan for a worst-case scenario based on the building’s construction, volume of fire, and units operating inside the building. Anticipate the building’s potential layout based on visible outside features, preplan information, and knowledge of similar buildings in the area. While performing an exterior reconnaissance, closely monitor the radio not only for Mayday messages but for the flow of communications regarding the fire. What are the first-in companies saying in their situation reports?

Although firefighter emergencies can occur at any stage, be extra vigilant in marginal conditions. Always monitor the location of the most exposed companies. Often, the first-in engine; truck; and, possibly, several additional companies are stretching the first two lines, conducting the primary search, and performing vertical ventilation. Keeping tabs on the most dangerous positions may subtract critical minutes from the search time for a lost or trapped member.

Incident response. The most effective use of the initial two- to four-member FAST company is as a reconnaissance unit. The members must enter quickly and as near as possible to the point of the member’s last known Mayday transmission location and, on finding the member, must establish his level of consciousness and air supply. If the firefighter is conscious but is disoriented or very lightly entrapped, the team should be able to perform a rescue. However, if the firefighter is unconscious; heavily entrapped by debris; or has fallen through a hole, shaft, or burned-through stairs, the initial FAST company will not have the proper equipment or air supply to perform a prolonged rescue.

Leave complex rescues to the next team. Once you deploy the initial FAST company, the IC must call for additional resources. In most cases, striking an additional alarm is an appropriate response; it will provide adequate personnel to perform a significant rescue operation as well as a fresh FAST company. The initial FAST company must relay an accurate position; maintain the trapped firefighter’s air supply; and deploy a handline, if needed, to keep any nearby fire at bay. If air supply allows, the FAST company should remain with the trapped firefighter until relieved by the rescue team. Understanding the scope of work made possible by a small initial FAST company is key when you deploy this resource properly and safely.

If you use it proactively and back it up with the appropriate reinforcements on deployment, the average FAST company in many smaller fire departments is a tool with great capabilities. The IC should use the FAST company’s reconnaissance element to his advantage when attempting to find and rescue disoriented firefighters. However, he must also have additional resources on hand or, at least, en route on transmission of a Mayday.

DAVID DeSTEFANO is a 20-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the North Providence (RI) Fire Department. He is also an instructor for the Rhode Island Fire Academy, where he teaches various topics including FAST company operations and a ladder company program that he codeveloped.

 

More Fire Engineering Issue Articles

 

Fire Engineering Archives