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A new device designed to move downed firefighters has hit the market. Hopefully, this device will take its place alongside the numerous inventions and tools that have made firefighting safer and more effective than ever.
The art of firefighting has always cultivated visionary and imaginative thinking. One of the first was in Holland, when the Superintendent of the Fire Brigade, Jan van der Heiden, and his son Nicholaas took firefighters even closer to the flames with the fashioning of the first fire hose in 1673. These 50-foot lengths of leather were "sewn together like a boot leg."
Protective equipment, breathing apparatus and forcible entry tools have all enjoyed major improvements allowing faster and safer operations on the fireground. Better radios, personal alert safety system (PASS) alarms and thermal imagers have made some of our operations, carried on under extreme conditions, more reliable and seemingly "modernistic." Lost firefighters can now be "heard" or "seen" even in the thickest of smoke. One major problem remains when the firefighter in trouble is located and is unconscious — how to move them.
Hours of lectures, stacks of books and articles, and even high-tech streaming video drills have espoused a number of techniques and tools to allow these firefighters to be removed to safety. Webbing, ropes, pulleys, straps and devices of every kind have been employed with varying results. As one who instructs firefighters in this very subject, one thing has always stayed constant in my mind: the more bells and whistles attached to your operation, the less chance for success. It seemed to us the simplest measure available to us was to make their breathing apparatus harness into a dragging or lifting harness. Relatively easy to drill on, yet the real-world difficulty of being able to do so under extreme conditions loomed above every lecture and drill we've given.
And what about rapid intervention teams? What should they do when a firefighter declares a "Mayday!" or similar transmission is heard? What tools should be assembled? Which tools deployed and when? After a series of firefighter fatalities, the FDNY wanted to standardize its FAST team operations. (In the FDNY an additional ladder company is dispatched to working fires and designated as a FAST truck — a firefighter assist and search team.)
In January 2005, the Training Division placed three FDNY instructors together to travel from firehouse to firehouse and train the on-duty members on FAST team procedures. The instructors, who did not know each other until placed together, fashioned a drill that was both challenging and well received. Their drill would begin in a firehouse kitchen, where an audiotape featuring "real-life" Mayday radio transmissions was listened to. The tape, recorded at a late-night multiple alarm, offered clear transmissions of a "lost firefighter" who was running out of air and had the presence of mind to call for help. The tape continues as the FAST team goes to work, other members answer the call for help and the bulk of the operating forces continue fighting the fire. The incident commander dutifully keeps tabs on the rescue effort as the firefighting continues.
Members move in and locate the now-unconscious firefighter and relay this information via radio. The member's condition, approximate location and the recommended route to the location is transmitted by the rescue team to the incident commander and incoming members. The downed firefighter is dragged to a stairs that led up from the below-grade location and out to the street. With difficulty, the member is removed to safety and a full recovery.
The drill continues with a recreation of the rescue in the basement of the firehouse. Clad in fire gear, a weighted mannequin was placed deep in the cellar and the firefighters were sent in to search and rescue the missing "firefighter." Before the drill commenced, the training team would move items in the area to be searched and add obstructions to better simulate an unknown layout.