The Rapid Intervention Reality of Your Fire Department

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The first three installments in this series, beginning in January 2011, talked about preliminary items that must be understood to have a successful rapid intervention team (RIT) on the fireground and asked what the true rapid intervention capability is for your fire department? Using National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1407, Standard for Training Fire Service Rapid Intervention Crews, as a guide, 18 points have been identified that can be used as minimum benchmarks in evaluating your department’s capability.

The first five points that were discussed in parts two and three (July and August 2011) dealt with preparedness and pre-loading. The remaining 13 points deal with specific skill competencies that should be essential for all firefighters functioning in the role of the RIT on the fireground.

Point 6 – Our fire department uses firefighters who are properly trained to fill the rapid intervention function on the fireground.

Rapid intervention is one of the most dangerous and important functions on the fireground, so why wouldn’t we want our best trained firefighters assigned to that task? Rescuing a downed firefighter will be one of the most physically demanding and mentally taxing events that take place on the fireground. Training for this event can be just as demanding and needs to be if success is desired (Figure 1).

Each year, roughly 10% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths take place on the training ground – the only time we have control of the conditions we face. The leading causes of training deaths such as overexertion and falls can be applicable to the training that must take place in relation to rapid intervention. Safety always has to be the number-one priority when training. Firefighters involved in any RIT training evolutions involving elevation differences must have a Class 3 safety harness and belay line in place – using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in the training environment does not qualify as this. If using live fire for training scenarios, NFPA 1403, Standard on Live-Fire Training Evolutions, should always be strictly adhered to.

Solid RIT skills come from having a thorough knowledge and understanding of the basics of firefighting. Proficiency in SCBA, personal protective equipment (PPE), fire behavior, building construction, ropes and knots, ladders, tools and equipment, forcible entry and communications provide the basic foundation to build RIT skills. If our people do not possess proficiency in these areas, how can we expect them to perform at a level where advanced skills, such as the rescue of a downed firefighter, are needed?

Once firefighters have a solid background in the basics, they also must be trained in self-survival skills before progressing into the rescue of one of our own. This provides an understanding of what firefighters being rescued will be trying to do to save themselves prior to the RIT getting to them and serve as a basis of what can be expected to be encountered. Some skills that should be included in this area are window hangs, wall breaching, drywall ladder establishment and emergency-egress techniques such as ladder bails and rope slides (Figures 2, 3 and 4).

Point 7 – Members of our fire department understand the limitations of SCBA and the principles of air management, and are skilled in using the SCBA to its fullest potential.

SCBA must be known and understood, inside and out, by every firefighter. Techniques needed to troubleshoot and correct low-order failures in hostile conditions are a necessity, as are techniques that may be necessary to navigate life-threatening situations (Figure 5).

With the increasing technological advances in communication systems and networking in today’s world also comes an increased hazard to firefighters. Numerous cables and wires are run through drop ceilings to facilitate these various systems. Also now prevalent is appliance and ventilation ductwork made from wire that is covered with a plastic or aluminum “skin.” Once subjected to heat, the plastic melts and the wound wire becomes very difficult to see. These hazards are present in office and commercial occupancies as well as in residential structures. The entanglement often occurs in the area of the firefighter’s SCBA. Numerous techniques exist for handling this hazard – every firefighter should be trained in these techniques and carry cutters that can be handled by a gloved hand and be strong enough to cut the materials faced (Figure 6).

Basic physiology tells us that firefighters consume the air in their SCBA at different rates. A working air supply will also depend on the firefighter’s training, physical condition, activity and mental state experienced under the stressful conditions encountered during firefighting. Does your department complete air-consumption drills for each firefighter on an annual basis? NFPA 1984, Standard on Respirators for Wildland Firefighting Operations, specifically mandates them to be completed each year.

Air-consumption drills are not costly or difficult to conduct. Items normally found in the fire station can be used to create a consumption course. The only caveat is that they are set up the same way each time one is performed. Items measured in an air-consumption drill include how much air the firefighter begins with, how long it takes before a low-pressure alarm sounds, the amount of time it takes to have the low-pressure alarm stop sounding and the time after that it takes to completely exhaust the residual air in the cylinder where the mask sucks to the face of the firefighter. Measuring these parameters gives firefighters confidence in themselves and their equipment (Figures 7 and 8).

Point 8 – All members of our fire department understand the uses and limitations of thermal imaging technology on the fireground.

Do our members truly understand how the thermal imager (TI) works and what its limitations are? If not, we can be asking for trouble. The use of TIs can result in firefighters developing overconfidence and dependability on the use of the camera. The use of thermal imaging cannot replace a secure and basic foundation in firefighter search techniques.

Thermal imaging technology is based on infrared energy. All objects located in an area above absolute zero (zero degrees Kelvin) temperature will emit infrared energy to some degree. Heat is classified as a form of infrared energy. Our unaided eye cannot see this energy. Visible light is also considered infrared energy, but it is on a different wavelength than heat on the electromagnetic spectrum. The amount of heat energy given off by objects is different. The picture on the viewing screen of a TI is a visual representation of temperature differences within an area. Even though visual impairment has taken place for the firefighter, the heat of combustion continues to exist. It is the heat that the technological function of thermal imaging capitalizes on. This is why a firefighter can get a visual representation of an area on the viewing screen when products of combustion have brought visibility levels near zero. Even though visible light (which is blocked by smoke) is not required for use, a TI cannot see through objects. Mass and density of an object will have a direct effect on the image visualized on the screen of a TI.

There are three types of emitters when speaking of infrared energy, which helps to explain how mass and density affect the image on the screen. Passive emitters are inanimate objects whose temperatures vary depending on the environment and time limit that it is exposed. Basic physics tells us that heat moves to a cold object until the object is the same temperature as the surrounding environment. A passive emitter absorbs heat in the same manner. Active emitters such as human beings and animals generate their own thermal energy. These objects can be hidden, or “masked,” easily when searching with a TI. The density of turnout gear or debris (passive emitters) covering firefighters may prevent their bodies (active emitters) from being picked up by a TI. Gear that is wet can also mask an image on the camera. It is important that the user understands this and is able the recognize shapes or objects that may be a part of a victim protruding from underneath debris. A direct-source emitter gives off the most thermal energy and is easily detectable with a TI. Fire itself is a direct-source emitter.

The various materials used for the sensor or focal plane array will make a difference in the image that we see on the screen of a TI, so a firefighter must understand that as well as which sensor is present in the camera being used – especially if the department owns several different makes or models.

An error commonly made is the way we train with TIs. Firefighters often train with TIs in a non-fireground environment (in the absence of heat conditions as present on the fireground). Training in this sense can provide an image that may be inverted in comparison to what may be actually encountered in a real situation and may also lack the “masking” of objects that can take place with fire conditions present. Firefighters in turn become accustomed to interpreting images that do not reflect what they can be expected to encounter.

Point 9 – The members of our fire department have trained on basic and advanced search procedures such as vent-enter-search (VES) and rope-assisted search procedures (RASP).

Does your department practice search techniques on a regular basis? When was the last time that your crews actually deployed rope and performed a team search? Preparing to perform fireground searches must be mental as well as physical. Basic skills such as orientation drills and mental mapping must be conducted on a regular basis. A simple, but effective drill is to bring firefighters into a room with their masks obscured, have them search the room just as if it were a real incident and then have them draw the room on a sheet of paper once back outside. This helps in developing the senses needed to search under the most adverse conditions.

Large-area searches present challenges and dangers that are out of the ordinary for firefighters. Are they familiar with these and do they fully understand the method or techniques practiced by your department for these types of operations?

Point 10 – The members of our fire department are skilled in and have practiced getting an air supply to a member who is out of air or trapped.

This is probably one of the most neglected areas when it comes to RIT training. Most Maydays on the fireground take place after crews have been working at the incident for a while. Getting air to the downed firefighter has to be our first priority after finding them. Are all of your department’s SCBA units up to date with the presence of universal air couplings? Do the members of your department understand how to work every option for getting air that is present on your rapid intervention pack?

Point 11 – Our department members are skilled in operating specialized rescue equipment and have practiced using it under hostile conditions.

The RIT is not a technical rescue team, but will have a duty to attempt the initial rescue efforts of trapped firefighters. The RIT’s capabilities will be limited by the members’ training and available equipment. Firefighters drill periodically with specialized tools and equipment in conditions that let them concentrate and see what they are doing. Can these members operate tools such as shores and airbags in hostile conditions as may be encountered in a situation involving a trapped firefighter?

Training is the key to successful RIT operations and staying out of trouble on the fireground. Knowing the basics needed for RIT operations can mean the difference between life and death. Train on them safely and know them well. The fireground is not the place to learn new skills.

Next: Points 12 through 18.