IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

BY DAN SHAW

All too often we read headlines such as “Firefighter Killed in the Line of Duty” and “Firefighter Killed; 3 Children Left Behind.” The first thought that comes to mind is, “What can I do to help?” Then, the preliminary reports follow with a detailed explanation of what happened on the fireground, and we think, “What could have been done differently?” “Could this have been avoided?” “That would never happen here.” In the months following, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report or official fire department report is released and cites lack of proper staffing; equipment failure; and, invariably, lack of a rapid intervention team (RIT).

HISTORY OF RIT

In 1998, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a standard that affected how future fireground operations would be run. The respiratory standard for entry into Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) atmospheres (e.g., structure fires) dictated that for operations inside an IDLH, there must be two trained and equipped personnel outside the IDLH.1 This standard faced immediate opposition considering the burden it would put on current staffing levels and operations. Additionally, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) did not issue a procedure for describing the training needed or setting minimum standards for the RIT. The fire department was now faced with implementing the RIT standard into fireground operations.

Many fire departments haphazardly implemented the standard but realized that there was no training to accompany this new and vital position. Firefighters began to research through case studies and personal experience the causes of injuries and deaths in the line of duty. From techniques that worked in successful rescues to unfortunate deaths, ideas were formed and exchanged, resulting in the training that many have had to this day.

Both OSHA’s standard and the RIT concept faced the hurdle of increased staffing costs for budget-crunched municipalities and volunteer recruitment. The new standard had developed a negative stigma, and critics perceived that at every fire there would be personnel outside doing nothing when instead they should be inside fighting fire.

A NEGATIVE PERCEPTION

A negative perception of RIT became widespread in the fire service. It began with the chief, who felt he needed all the companies on the assignment to work directly on the fire, and continued all the way to the newest rookie, who only heard how RIT was useless and offered no “real” experience. To make matters worse, some rookies were not even trained in RIT practices in recruit school because of time constraints and limited funds.

No true firefighter wants to stay outside on every fire—or any fire, for that matter. This stereotype is where the problem lies. Everyone is guilty of contributing to this negative perception, and there is no purpose in assigning blame to any particular rank. The question is, How do we break the cycle of perceptual negativity with regard to RIT?

ALTERING THE PERCEPTION

First, RIT must be treated with the same pride and bravado as “first in.” Therefore, we must educate our personnel about the benefits of RIT. The first step in this process is to evaluate the training of our personnel. Many departments across the country have a haz-mat or technical rescue team, and as part of these specialty teams there always seems to be one common underlying trait: pride. Regardless of how often a department puts these skills to work, the members are proud to be on the team. This can be traced back to the specialized training they received. Pride is exuded not because of the number of saves they have or their total number of runs in a year but because the members have received specialized training for these situations and they are eager to put it into practice.

The burden does not fall only on the firefighters; it is necessary to have support from above. Imagine if RIT training and operations were given the same fiscal and administrative support from the upper echelon as the technical rescue or haz-mat team. If the leaders of the organization set the mark high and demonstrate a high level of support, the department will respond with equal dedication.

Second, to alter the perception, the hazards of our occupation should be likened to those experienced by military personnel in battle. There are many parallels between the military and the fire service from rank structure to everyday operations. For example, the RIT in the fire service can be equated to Special Forces in the military. Special Forces are responsible for the recovery of personnel when they become missing in action (MIA). The RIT serves the same purpose when our personnel signal a Mayday in a fire. Special Forces are highly trained to face any situation involving one of their own going down. As a part of this specialized and skilled training, they have incredible unit pride, even though they may never even have an opportunity to put it into practice. Despite this incredible responsibility, they are all ultimately soldiers. Similarly, firefighters may have to operate in extraordinary conditions saving our own, but for day-to-day operations, they are all ultimately firefighters. Unfortunately, in contrast, RIT firefighters do not receive the high level of training that Special Forces soldiers do.

SPECIALIZED TRAINING BENEFITS ALL

Is specialized training the answer? We will never know until we try to change the trend that shows we are still losing an average of 100 firefighters per year in line-of-duty deaths.2 How many of those could have been avoided if we had focused on firefighter survival and RIT training the way we focus on rudimentary fireground tasks? We train harder to protect the public than we do to protect ourselves.

RIT training can hopefully help to decrease the number of injuries and deaths per year, in turn saving departments money. The money can then be turned around and used to fund further training.

IMPLEMENTING A SUCCESSFUL RIT PROGRAM

Train your firefighters in safety and survival. If firefighters can mitigate a situation in a fire that they have already faced in a training environment, that is one less Mayday that will be transmitted. This includes SCBA emergencies, radio operations, and self-rescue techniques. We need to be proactive, not reactive, to these situations.

Train all personnel in RIT operations. The RIT should not stand idly at the command post. Train the firefighters to take a reconnaissance lap around the structure, perform noncommittal tasks (e.g., clearing means of egress and shutting off utilities), and throw ladders to any windows they can find. Be proactive, but do not overcommit. If you are coming out a window when a room flashes, you will want a ladder in the window. A RIT standing dormant next to the incident commander will not help in these situations.

Create a collaborative environment for sharing ideas. Firefighter survival and RIT techniques are not governed by any standards, so we need to share ideas. Our focus is to get out alive. If I have the choice between death and a broken bone, I’ll take the latter. This is not the arena to keep innovative ideas to yourself. Share the idea, test it out, and train your firefighters in the technique. When a Mayday occurs, everyone needs to be on the same page. A tense, zero-visibility environment is not the place for you to break out a new knot or a rigging idea.

Train for the Mayday. You may never in your career be on a fireground when a Mayday is transmitted. However, if you are, it is not the place to learn how many resources it takes. A quick look at the results of the Bret Tarver Phoenix fatality report shows that it takes 12 firefighters to rescue one.3 Imagine an entire engine company goes down, and you have never trained for this situation. Once again, we must be proactive and train for the RIT.

The underlying theme is training in this entire process. This includes firefighter safety, RIT operations, and our everyday operations. We need to work as one collective unit and learn from each other. The lessons learned from incidents should be incorporated into training. Only then can we make a true concerted effort at altering the trend of losing our own. n

References

1. U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Health & Safety Administration, Respiratory Protection standard, 29 CFR 1910.134. (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1998), paragraph 4.

2. Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Fire Administration, 102 Firefighter fatalities in 2002. 22 June 2003, http://www.usfa.fema.gov/inside-usfa/media/03-005.shtm (9 January 2003).

3. Phoenix Fire Department, Final Report: Southwest Supermarket Fire, 8 July 2003, http://www.ci.phoenix. az.us/FIRE/report.pdf (12 March 2002).

DAN SHAW, a 10-plus-year veteran of the fire service, is an apparatus technician with the Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department. He is a field instructor with the University of Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute and Traditions Training, LLC. He has an A.A.S. in fire service management and is currently completing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland.

No posts to display