BY SCOTT SOMERS
In the 1990s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) amended 29 CFR 1910.120 to include a two-in/two-out policy, whereby initial arriving fire companies are required to have two members stand by for a rescue effort in case the initial attack team becomes lost, trapped, or incapacitated. Fire departments across the country have implemented standard operating procedures to include rapid intervention crews (RIC) to account for firefighter safety during the initial attack and have trained on various methods of removing “downed” firefighters from buildings. Although many firefighters and officers feel confident that they can remove an incapacitated firefighter from a hazardous environment, moving an unconscious firefighter while under constant assault from the products of combustion is much more difficult than most firefighters can imagine.
Specialized training programs, such as “Saving Our Own,” have been used to demonstrate a variety of tools and techniques for firefighter rescue. These include pushing and pulling on protective clothing or the SCBA harness, distributing sections of rope or webbing so members can concoct a makeshift device for dragging, and a RIC bag deployment. The majority of fire departments use these methods. RIC drills conducted by the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department (PFD) in 2001-2002 demonstrated the limitations of these techniques and spurred the department to look for the best method of facilitating the rescue of an incapacitated firefighter.
After exhaustive training and evaluation of the various methods and tools used in the extrication of a downed firefighter, the PFD began installing an integrated rescue device in their firefighters’ turnout coats (the term “rescue device” was selected intentionally for this article to help differentiate it from a National Fire Protection Association 1983 standard certified harness).
RAPID INTERVENTION ISN’T RAPID
On March 14, 2001, the PFD lost Firefighter Bret Tarver in the Southwest Supermarket fire. During that fire, Tarver had gotten off the hoseline, became disoriented inside the building, and ran out of air. Two fully staffed fire companies were immediately deployed to locate and extricate him from the building. Despite displays of heroism and the extraordinary efforts of command and fire companies operating in an orchestrated effort to rescue Tarver, he died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.1
In the 12-month period following the Southwest Supermarket fire, the PFD conducted a series of Mayday exercises designed not only to practice the rapid intervention crew process but also to collect data regarding the time and resources required to effectively remove a firefighter from a building. After conducting some 200 RIC drills involving the participation of 1,144 firefighters from Phoenix and surrounding departments, the Deployment Committee came to the conclusion that rapid intervention isn’t rapid.2
In the RIC drills performed by the PFD, it took crews an average of 21/2 minutes to get into a “ready state”—that is, collect equipment and discuss a search, rescue, and exit plan. The time from the announcement of a Mayday until the rescue crew entered the structure averaged 3.03 minutes. On average, it took the RIC members another 5.82 minutes to make contact with the downed firefighter, and the total time inside the building for each team was 12.33 minutes. The Committee concluded that it takes roughly 21.8 minutes to rescue a firefighter who is 40 feet off the end of a hoseline stretched 150 feet into a structure. (2),3
(1) A firefighter practices removing a “downed” firefighter from a storage room. (Photo by author.)
Staffing was also demonstrated to be very critical in the rescue of an incapacitated firefighter. It took a minimum of 12 firefighters to effect a rescue (2, 3) This is an especially troublesome finding since the majority of fire departments across the United States are critically understaffed. When compared with statistics provided in the U.S. Fire Administration’s report A Needs Assessment for the U.S. Fire Service, this number of firefighters may exceed the total on-duty force available for fire suppression in some communities and certainly may exceed the total personnel on the scene of an average fire incident.4
To get a better appreciation for the time and personnel requirements for firefighter rescue, keep in mind that the environment in which the Phoenix drills were conducted affects the time measurements given here. The drill scenario was designed to be fairly simple. The building floors were concrete, and few obstacles were placed in the way. Crews could follow an attack hoseline to locate the downed firefighter with minimal difficulty. A cassette tape of fireground noises was played, but no heat or smoke was introduced into the environment. Actual firefighter rescues might be conducted in high heat and zero visibility. Many RIC drills are conducted in buildings with dry concrete floors as opposed to water-soaked carpeted floors that would be present in most single-family and multifamily houses. Plus, while such an exercise has some degree of stress associated with it, it cannot come close to simulating the stress of rescuing a downed colleague. Thus, in real-life rescue scenarios, the rescue timeframe could be agonizingly longer.
These data should be especially disconcerting to small, mid-size, and volunteer fire department officers whose available resources and firefighters on-scene to effectively conduct a search and rescue of a downed firefighter are often more limited than those of their big-city counterparts. (4)
LIMITATIONS OF CURRENT RESCUE METHODS
Even though the PFD had “successfully” practiced removing a downed firefighter during simulated Mayday exercises using traditionally accepted tools and techniques, it became readily apparent that these methods were particularly problematic while under actual fire combat conditions. The rescue of Firefighter Tarver was complicated by near-zero visibility, water from firefighting efforts, extreme heat conditions, obstructions present in the warehouse, and falling debris. All of these elements are nearly impossible to simulate. It became clear that the tools and equipment used to rescue firefighters from such an environment need to be simple to use, quickly accessible, and effective.
(2) Problems were encountered when using a “rescue loop” or webbing. Here, the firefighter’s mask is pulled from his face while he is being dragged. [Photo courtesy of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department.]
SHORTCOMINGS OF COMMON METHODS
Following is a description of the shortcomings our members encountered while using the more common methods of firefighter rescue.
- Drag/Push/Pull. Fire departments across the country have typically relied on training their members in various ways to push, pull, or drag an incapacitated firefighter out of a hazardous environment. It is hard to explain to a firefighter how difficult it is to manipulate an unconscious firefighter through the hallways of a building, up or down a flight of stairs, and out to safety. Fortunately, most of us have never had to undertake this task. However, most firefighters can relate to trying to remove an unconscious patient from a bedroom or a bathroom at an EMS call. A limp body can be very difficult to carry because of poor grip and dead weight.
When attempting to drag, push, or pull an unconscious firefighter out of a building, all of the challenges of an unconscious person apply. In addition, SCBA straps have a tendency to come loose, and turnout clothing is apt to slide off. Firefighters may have to stand to obtain adequate leverage to drag a body across a carpeted floor. This can be nearly impossible in high-heat fire situations. Add to these challenges the weight of equipment, low visibility, and emotional stress, and you can imagine the exponential increase in the level of difficulty.
During the attempt to rescue Tarver, firefighters had problems getting a good grip, causing many of them to remove their protective gloves. It is imperative that firefighters be able to operate the rescue device while properly wearing full protective equipment.
- SCBA Harness. Another commonly applied technique is using the SCBA harness to try to drag a firefighter from a building. Yet, the vast majority of SCBA harnesses are not designed for use as a firefighter rescue device. When wearing firefighting gloves, it is often very difficult to manipulate SCBA straps adequately so that they can be secured and used to pull a firefighter to safety without their becoming loose. There is also no guarantee that the incapacitated firefighter will be wearing his SCBA when the RIC team arrives. Studies of firefighter fatalities have demonstrated that firefighters might doff their SCBA to eliminate the “excess” weight or disentangle themselves while trying to find a way out of the building.5 Thus, RIC members may come across a firefighter who has already removed the SCBA and any preattached rescue device.
- Ropes, Webbing, and Straps. The PFD experimented with the use of “rescue loops” (other departments commonly use webbing or straps) to aid in the rescue of a downed firefighter. The rescue loop was essentially a section of looped rope approximately one yard in length. Each firefighter was issued a rescue loop and instructed on various methods for attaching the rope to a firefighter’s body or an SCBA harness. Problems with this method became readily apparent during the recovery training. Properly securing a firefighter under limited visibility conditions was time consuming. The ropes and straps would tend to slip off during dragging operations. In addition, more than 40 percent of the firefighters didn’t have their rope sections with them during RIC training. (3) They would either remove the rope sections from their turnouts to reduce the clutter in their pockets or have their turnouts cleaned and forget to place the rope back in their gear.
- Externally Attached Rescue Harness. Externally attached rescue harnesses are typically not readily available to firefighters. They tend to be too bulky to carry in a turnout pocket and too expensive to issue to every member of the department. Thus, most external rescue harnesses are carried in RIC bags to deploy in a Mayday situation. During the Phoenix RIC drills, nearly 30 percent of crews failed to acquire the RIC bag before entering the structure. (3)
In addition, attaching an external rescue harness to a downed firefighter in a zero-visibility, high-heat environment can be extremely challenging. Firefighters usually must be rolled from side to side to properly place the device, and clips can be difficult to manipulate with a gloved hand. However, a harness device gives great leverage once attached and is quite effective in enabling a single firefighter to drag an incapacitated firefighter out of a building while staying low in a superheated environment.
- Rescue Tarp/Sled. Salvage tarps used during overhaul operations have also been used as rescue devices. As with many of the aforementioned rescue systems, a rescue tarp is too bulky to be carried on the firefighter’s person during fire suppression operations. Therefore, the tarp must be brought to an incapacitated firefighter from the outside, meaning firefighter rescue is delayed until the RIC team arrives. Some tarp rescue systems have been designed for use by one firefighter, but most require a minimum of two and as many as four firefighters to stand and carry the member out of the structure. For small and mid-sized departments, where staffing is critical, it may be difficult to find sufficient personnel resources in a timely fashion.
A device with similar applications as a rescue tarp is a sled. A sled has the advantage of being able to be used by one or two firefighters, but additional personnel are needed to manipulate and secure the fallen firefighter onto the device. The size of the sled also means that the device must be brought into the building after the report of a Mayday, meaning that valuable survival time is ticking away.
(3) Firefighters experiment with an integrated rescue device. [Photo courtesy of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department.]
(4) When stowed, the integrated rescue device is protected by a fire resistant flap. One firefighter can deploy the device with a gloved hand. (Photo by author.)
INTEGRATED RESCUE DEVICE
A rescue device integrated into the firefighter’s personal protective (turnout) jacket provides many of the same benefits as an externally attached harness and has the added advantages of being ever-present, easy to operate, and relatively inexpensive so that every department member can have one. The device is intended to drag or pull an incapacitated firefighter from a hazardous environment or out of a burning building. More complicated firefighter rescue scenarios, such as entanglement, entrapment, and high-angle rescue, may require additional resources such as technical rescue teams and specialized tools.
An integrated rescue device is sewn into the firefighter’s personal protective (turnout) jacket. Such a system eliminates the cumbersome, time-consuming, and problematic steps of finding a rescue loop or webbing, securing it around a fallen firefighter; and pulling off the firefighter’s protective clothing or SCBA during rescue efforts or bringing in from the outside an extrication device and attaching it to the fallen firefighter.
With an integrated rescue device, an incapacitated firefighter’s partner can rapidly begin the extrication process after calling for a Mayday instead of having to wait for an outside RIC unit to enter the building, find the downed member, attach an external device, and exit the structure.
Integrated rescue devices are typically placed between the thermal barrier and outer shell of the turnout coat. This protects the webbing while allowing for easy access for visual inspection. When stowed, the strap loosely wraps around the firefighter’s shoulders so as not to restrict movement. The handle is protected by a cover made of the same fire resistant material as the coat and is secured with self-fastening strips or snaps. This protects the handle from heat, water, and debris.
Deploying the device is simple and can be done by a single firefighter using a gloved hand. The rescuer begins by lifting the protective cover, exposing the handle of the device, and pulling taunt. When deployed, the device secures the downed firefighter around the shoulders, pulling directly on the firefighter, not his jacket. This prevents the firefighter’s coat or SCBA from being inadvertently pulled off and provides a secure “grip” on the downed firefighter. Securing the firefighter in this manner enables the rescuer to drag the downed firefighter while staying low in heat and smoke and also provides leverage when lifting a firefighter over obstacles such as debris and warehouse stock or up or down a flight of stairs.
Overall, Phoenix firefighters have been very pleased with the addition of an integrated rescue device into their turnout coats. The system is lightweight and does not restrict movement. This was extremely important in the implementation process, since firefighters would have to perform fire suppression and overhaul activities while wearing the device.
A number of protective clothing manufacturers offer the option of an integrated rescue device in their products. But, the timely and successful rescue of an incapacitated firefighter is not an option! An NFPA technical committee is in the process of revising NFPA 1971, Standard on Protec-tive Clothing for Structural Fire Fighting, and is considering including a requirement for an integrated rescue device in all newly produced turnout coats.
Even if an integrated rescue device were included in the next edition of NFPA 1971, it would take some time before every firefighter’s turnout coat is equipped with this device. In the interim, fire departments should continue to develop the tools, techniques, and procedures that will prepare them to respond to a Mayday. Those who purchase protective clothing for their department should seriously consider adding an integrated rescue device to their department’s turnout coat specifications.
1. Final Report: Southwest Supermarket Fire, Phoenix Fire Department, Mar. 12, 2002.
2. Kreis, Steve. “Rapid Intervention Isn’t Rapid,” Fire Engineering, Dec. 2003.
3. Perry, Ron, “Rescue Sector Training Exercises, Final Report,” Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, June 4, 2002.
4. A Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service, U.S. Fire Administration, Dec. 2002.
5. Firefighter Fatalities, National Fire Protection Association, 1997.
SCOTT SOMERS is a member of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. He has a master’s degree in fire service administration from Arizona State University, where he is a public administration doctoral student in the School of Public Affairs.