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.
A smoke machine was used to charge the area with smoke and all the building lights were turned off. Personal flashlights were allowed, but generally proved of little use in the dense smoke. The instructors added continual chatter on the portable radios and even introduced music at times to add to the confusion as company members searched the basement, located the "downed firefighter" and dragged "him" to the stairs and carried it up to safety.
After numerous drill cycles, it was becoming clear to the instructors that moving downed firefighters was difficult at best and near impossible at worst. Crossing debris and clutter spread out on floors while dealing with the victim's "dead weight" was challenging and the final stages of removing the firefighter up the stairs was especially difficult. They began searching for something on the market to help them overcome these problems. One company was selling a device that could possibly be used. It was a plastic sheet with straps, buckles and grommets that was designed for used in confined spaces. The manufacturer also had a stripped-down version for use as a hazardous materials incident patient drag. They talked with the company's owner, who agreed the present devices he sold would not fit their needs. He sent them back to New York with his best wishes and many ideas.
They returned to their own drawing board and began experimenting with polypropylene boards and webbing. Version after version was fashioned, only to be discarded. After a year and a half, a prototype of the eventual device began to emerge amid piles of cut plastic and chunks of webbing. The new device was loaded with weight, hung from a tree and dragged up and down stairs to prove its strength and reliability. They knew they were on the right track, but the drag rescue device solved only part of the problem. What if you had to raise the unconscious firefighter up or lower him down from a height? A rated harness would be necessary, but these systems are classically complicated to don and under rescue situations with zero visibility they would not be effective. Simplicity was the key.
A harness system was designed where the straps could be easily attached with large rated snaps into a bullring. A large Y-shaped strap covers the shoulders and quickly attaches at the waist strap, another slips up between the legs and all are married together with three oversized snaps into a bullring. The harness system can easily be removed from the sled to allow for decontamination. A system utilizing head immobilization blocks can also be used if the situation and patient needs require it.
With a firefighter properly buckled into the device, he or she can be dragged to an exit, carried by hand, slid up or down stairs or attached to a mechanical advantage system and raised or lowered to safety.
This revolutionary piece of rescue equipment, named the RITE (Rapid Intervention Tactical Evacuation) Rescue Sled, consists of precision-cut 0.093-inch thick, 36-inch-wide polypropylene and a rated nylon harness with oversized hardware. According to the design team, the device is not limited in its scope of use. They envision other practical fire service applications such as moving downed civilians, mass-casualty and hazardous materials incidents as well as its use in military and police operations.
Moving a downed firefighter is not easy. Firefighters must be trained and disciplined in this arduous assignment. Take a simple drill and slowly complicate it, but keep it the same. Try it on the apparatus floor. Try it on the apparatus floor with the lights out. Do the same basic maneuvers, but make the situation more and more challenging. Don't find yourself wishing you had practiced more on what will probably be the toughest assignment you'll ever get.
PAUL HASHAGEN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired FDNY firefighter who was assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an ex-chief of the Freeport, NY, Fire Department. Further information about the RITE Rescue Sled, visit www.riterescuenyc.com or call 631-321-RITE (7483).