BY DENNIS CARMAN
During the past few years, a large amount of information on rapid intervention teams has been published: How do you establish a rapid intervention team (RIT)? How do you establish guidelines? Should a department supply its own rapid intervention team or use mutual aid? How many members should the responding team have? What tools should a RIT team carry to the fireground? What type of apparatus is best suited for a RIT response? The list goes on.
One aspect of the RIT team that has not been addressed is the team leader or RIT team officer. Anyone involved with the rapid intervention concept will tell you that every member of the team has a specific tool assignment and job function once on the fireground. But who is responsible for the team and its operations? The RIT officer. The officer should be the most important component of the team—the brains—and in command of the team’s decisions and actions.
Most fire departments have an established rank structure consisting of chiefs, assistant chiefs, captains, lieutenants, and even second lieutenants who are responsible for the department’s daily operations. These same officers form the command structure during an emergency incident.
In the volunteer fire service, most departments have requirements that must be completed before a member becomes a line officer. These requirements vary from department to department. One department may simply require a person to attain Firefighter I certification and complete some form of officer training course. Another might require Firefighter II certification, Fire Officer certification, and a certain number of years of service before becoming an officer. The point is, not all “officers” are of equal knowledge, ability, or experience.
This should raise some concerns. Officers who may be assigned or assume command as a RIT officer need to be held to a higher standard. They must to be motivated, strong, and decisive leaders capable of being diplomatic and controlling.
The RIT team should resemble or assume the personality of the officer. If the officer is motivated, the team will be motivated. Motivation is what drives a good RIT team. A motivated team will have the ability to understand why the members are standing in the cold, the wet, or the heat, knowing what job they may have to perform at a moment’s notice. It allows the team to follow and focus on fireground operations and to think ahead of the suppression forces, always planning for what could go wrong and what to do if something does go wrong. Motivation needs to be instilled in and expected of the team. When the officer is not motivated, the team will suffer along with the poor firefighter who may need the team’s assistance.
STRONG AND DECISIVE LEADER
Any member who has the opportunity to be a RIT officer must be a strong and decisive leader who understands the awesome responsibility that may be placed on the team by situations that arise in a split second. RIT officers must be able to give orders that are followed without question. When the officer is strong and decisive, the team has confidence in the officer’s abilities as a decision maker.
On the fireground, the officer should be gathering information and planning before something goes wrong. If a situation presents itself, the RIT officer may have to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life. Is there any chance for a successful rescue, or will it be a recovery operation? Remember, firefighters will try to walk through fire to rescue one of their own. The RIT officer has to protect the members of the “team.” No firefighter or officer wants to be involved in a line-of-duty death; but as hard as the fire service tries, members are still lost. The RIT officer has a responsibility to the team members—to ensure they do not become statistics.
Why diplomacy? The RIT officer will be dealing with many different personalities once the team has to begin a rescue operation. Consider the following scenario: A Mayday has been transmitted. You and your team are going to work. Now you’re met by well-intentioned firefighters who want to help, who may feel they will do a better job than your team. “That’s our brother or sister in need of assistance.” Diplomacy can make or break the operation. The RIT officer has to deal with these firefighters without allowing them to interfere with the rescue operation. Some of these individuals may insist or even demand that they be part of the rescue; however, this is no time for a confrontation.
The RIT officer has two options to solve this confrontational situation: request a chief or line officer to control the firefighters and remove them from the area, or take advantage of the additional help. The best way to use these members is to assign them to support functions within the rescue operations. Once the RIT officer makes the decision to use these firefighters, the firefighters must understand that the RIT officer is in command of the operation. Ab-solutely no freelancing will be tolerated.
Using both options to some extent is in the RIT officer’s best interest. There is now another officer to work with the RIT officer to control the firefighters. This officer will also be responsible for removing the firefighters who do not work well within the rescue plan. The second officer must know that the RIT officer is in command of the rescue operation.
In addition, using the extra personnel could be of great benefit. Many times, because of the nature of the operation, a large number of personnel may be needed to complete or assist in the rescue. Keep in mind that more is not always a good thing. Decide who and how many firefighters are needed for the support functions; all others should be moved from the operating area. Personnel assigned to the support functions should retrieve, assemble, and prepare any tools or equipment needed for the rescue operation. In anticipation of a prolonged operation, some of the remaining personnel can be assigned as a relief crew, a backup team, or a second RIT. Having a second RIT composed of on-scene firefighters may not be one of the best options. It might be more beneficial to request a second RIT from another department immediately after the original RIT goes into operation.
The ability to control may be the most important attribute of a RIT officer. Dealing with the team, the chiefs, other officers, the well-intentioned firefighters, and even with himself will be a challenge. All have one goal: the rescue of a downed firefighter. Control will allow the chiefs and other officers to know that all is well in your hands. Control will convince that well-intentioned firefighter that being a part of a backup team or assisting in a support role will be important to the success of the operation. Finally, control will allow the RIT officer to be organized and clear-minded so that he can make the decisions necessary for success. Without the ability to control, there is an increased chance for other injuries, or worse.
As you can see, the RIT officer has some of the largest boots to fill on the fireground. Many departments have guidelines or requirements pertaining to who is eligible to respond as a RIT member. Maybe after thinking about what you have just read, you will agree that the RIT officer should receive some additional training before undertaking such an awesome responsibility.
DENNIS CARMAN, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is a deputy chief instructor at the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Academy. A New York State-certified fire instructor and a national certified fire instructor, he has been a rapid intervention instructor for seven years. He served as an advisor to the Brookhaven (NY) Town Chief’s Council for Rapid Intervention.