DETERMINING THE HAZARD AREA OF DOWNED FIREFIGHTERS

BY FRANK L. KRAMER III

When a rapid intervention team (RIT) responds to an actual incident, it must possess the skill and ability to locate the downed firefighters; perform a hazard assessment; mitigate those hazards; and extricate the firefighters rapidly, efficiently, and safely. Radio transmissions from the interior crew to the external rescue officer/incident commander (RO/IC) will determine how the initial rescue plan and, more importantly, the contingency plan are developed. A quick, efficient radio transmission is needed that will let the RO/IC know with which hazards the interior crew is dealing. In some RIT deployments in larger departments, the interior crew communicates directly with the outside RO, who relays the information to the IC. In smaller departments with a limited number of line officers, the RO and IC may be the same person. The Red, Yellow, Green System (RYGS) works well for this task. Unlike the Hot, Warm, and Cold Zone system currently used for haz-mat incidents, RYGS is better suited for RIT operations. Each of the three zones have the potential to contain hazards.

Red Zone. In this area, the seat of the fire and adjacent areas are still in a free-burn stage. The hazards encountered could include but are not limited to the following:

  • extreme radiant heat with open flame,
  • superheated and toxic gases,
  • oxygen deficiency,
  • low or decreased visibility (may be enhanced with thermal imaging camera), and
  • compromised structural stability.

Firefighter survival in the Red Zone depends on the following:

  • full personal protective equipment (PPE) with no breach in protective envelope,
  • fully functioning SCBA with adequate air supply,
  • charged hoselines flowing adequate gallons per minute (gpm) of water to suppress extreme radiant heat buildup, and
  • ventilation (horizontal, vertical, and hydraulic).

If the exterior RO/IC receives a transmission from interior crew members stating they have a downed firefighter in a Red Zone, the RO/IC can establish a rescue plan. The initial concerns should concentrate on deploying firefighters other than RIT members to operate the hose streams protecting the victim and the RIT. The RIT can then concentrate on firefighter removal, without having to deplete its resources.

Caution: Applying hose streams to protect firefighters in the Red Zone must be done in such a way as to not create large amounts of steam. Even if the personal protective equipment is intact, it is possible to cause critical burns. In one incident, after a firefighter fell through the floor of a structure into the basement, firefighters used fog streams to try to “protect” him from the heat. This forced steam and superheated gases into the basement, causing second- and third-degree burns. There was no evidence of direct flame impingement on his gear. The only areas of burn-through were a few small ember holes.

If extrication will be delayed because the downed firefighter is trapped or pinned or his bottle pressure is low, air supply must be maintained. Air supply maintenance methods include bottle transfill via RIT fitting, in-line connection to an additional air source, swapping mask-mounted regulators with an additional SCBA brought in by the RIT, or using the buddy breathing connection.

If the initial RIT can’t complete the extrication, enough trained personnel should be available on-scene to complete the operation.

Yellow Zone. This includes any rooms or areas within the fire building adjacent to the Red Zone but not engulfed in flames. A Yellow Zone may also exist after initial suppression efforts have knocked down the bulk of fire. Hazards encountered in the Yellow Zone include moderate to extreme heat, moderate to heavy smoke, and limited or fair visibility.

Firefighter survival in the Yellow Zone depends on the following:

  • full PPE with no breach in the protective envelope,
  • fully functioning SCBA with adequate air supply, and
  • ventilation (horizontal, vertical, and hydraulic).

An RO/IC faced with a downed firefighter in a Yellow Zone can establish a rescue plan knowing that the primary concern is maintaining the firefighter’s air supply. The RO/IC should also remember that it is possible for a Yellow Zone to suddenly become a Red Zone without warning, so charged lines should be ready in case they are needed.

Green Zone. This includes any rooms or areas inside the fire structure where hose streams and breathing air would not be required to sustain life. The rescue officer’s biggest concern with a downed firefighter in a Green Zone is having the personnel and equipment in place to defend and maintain the Green Zone, keeping it from deteriorating into a Yellow or Red Zone.

Although a firefighter may be down in a Green Zone, there can still be high hazard concerns. If a firefighter falls through a floor during overhaul, late in the fire operation, it is obvious that the building’s structural integrity has been compromised. But without smoke and heat, this area is still a Green Zone. However, it would be up to the interior crew to let the RO/IC know that it has a downed firefighter in a Green Zone in which the structural integrity is compromised. The RO/IC can then devise a rescue plan incorporating structural collapse procedures.

Following is a method for remembering the system:

  • Red Zone: Firefighter needs air and charged (flowing) lines.
  • Yellow Zone: Firefighter needs air and charged (nonflowing) lines.
  • Green Zone: Firefighter does not need air or charged lines, but they should be ready.

By following this procedure, the interior crew will be able to communicate a lot of information to the RO/IC without requiring a lengthy radio transmission. The only other critical information to be communicated would be if the downed firefighter is trapped or pinned. A sample transmission follows: “Interior RIT to RO. Located one firefighter. Floor 2, side delta. Location: Red Zone. Firefighter trapped under a partial roof collapse. His low pressure alarm is active.” I pray you never have to make or receive this transmission during your fire service career, except during a training operation.

FRANK L. KRAMER III, a lieutenant and a 28-year veteran of the Lambertville (NJ) Fire Department, is a state certified fire instructor and a senior technical rescue instructor with S.T.A.R.T Rescue Training, Inc. He is the department’s training officer, the Technical Rescue Team Rope Division leader, a member of the Hunterdon County Technical Rescue Task Force, and a rescue officer with the Hunterdon County South FAST Unit.

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