From The Officer’s Seat

With the inherent dangers to firefighters that are associated with suppression activity, maintaining and improving our rapid intervention skills continues to be a priority. While numerous firefighters have lost their lives in building collapses, there are also cases of firefighter fatalities in which the inability to move the victim played a contributing role in the negative outcome.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
Any sturdy hand tool can be used to create a sidewall anchor. Make the breach hole only big enough to pass the tool through.

The first part of this series on firefighter removal skills (April 2000) introduced the concept of a rapid intervention rope bag. It suggested one method of using the rapid intervention team (RIT) bag to remove a firefighter from a second floor through a window as the only viable way out of a structure. This installment, will address the scenario of a firefighter falling through a hole in a floor.

Two-Pronged Attack

Whenever a firefighter is down in a building, the RIT should develop a two-pronged attack in accessing the victim. Too often, we put all our efforts into one plan that ultimately fails before we try a different tactic. Professional firefighters who pride themselves on their rescue skills always have plans B, C and D. In a "Mayday" situation, both plans A and B need to be implemented simultaneously.

Our RIT size up-should include a complete walk around the structure. In numerous cases, walkout basements in the rear may offer access to the firefighter in trouble. In the rear of dwelling involved in a fatal fire in Pittsburgh, there were actually two floors below the visible grade of the front of the building. While an outside basement access to a trapped firefighter seems the logical direction to follow, our RIT skills tell us to also begin alternate access route. Perhaps the quickest escape route for the downed firefighter in a basement may be the hole through which he or she fell.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
Solid-core doors are ideal, but a rarity in newer residential construction. If there are no doors in the structure to work from, a backboard will suffice.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
Two wooden six-foot pike poles will accomplish the same effect if your department lacks a steel halligan hook.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
Method 1

Photo by Mark J. McLees
Method 2

Photo by Mark J. McLees
The attic ladder not only aids in accessing the victim, but doubles as the anchor. If the edges of the hole are not jagged, the ladder can be used as a makeshift backboard to guide the victim over the edge.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
The halligan should ideally be on the same side shoulder as the direction of the hauling rope. The two members should also be similar in height to prevent the hook from sliding off center.

Priority No. 1 is accessing the victim. The priority is to get a RIT member into the hole as soon as possible. The method is not as important as the speed by which this occurs. Sliding down a charged handline offers added protection to both members in the basement.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
At the critical point, the pulley is maxed out and cannot slide any higher on the line. Performing this evolution on a scuttle for training actually is more difficult due to the added eight-inch lip.

Once with the victim, it is critical that the rescuer assess the vital signs of the victim. Depending on the situation, we may begin to treat in place or get out as fast as possible. These decisions are critical and require level-headed thinking. Is the building burning down around you? Is the victim pinned by debris or building components? Perhaps the victim's self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is depleted - have RIT members brought a spare SCBA into the building?

In RIT evolutions in which a firefighter is lifted vertically, it is encouraged to re-attach the SCBA waist belt through the crotch of the victim. In this way, the makeshift harness will prevent the firefighter from falling out of the SCBA. Depending on your brand of SCBA and the size of the victim, this may be impossible. Training is the key to identifying your ability to make this simple changeover rapidly.

The concept of rapid intervention is simple: to save firefighters' lives. Just as in firefighter survival techniques, you either pass or fail - there are no extra points for style. Any gimmicks or shortcuts that work are acceptable as long as they are simple and quick. In some cases, we may be forced to use power saws to make the hole bigger. We may need to breech the ceiling above the hole to lift a larger firefighter all the way through the hole. These are time-consuming evolutions and are not conducive to a positive outcome.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
Remember "Under the Big W" – this will help you rapidly conceptualize how the rope is supposed to lay out.

Remember the worst-case scenario: the building is on fire and an unconscious firefighter needs to be moved as quickly as possible. The ultimate test of your RIT skills will be in your ability to perform these evolutions blind. Pigs, Z-rigs and other mechanical-advantage systems, while useful in a less hostile environment, may only complicate an already difficult situation. Keep it simple!

Safety For Rescuers

The accompanying diagrams and photos illustrate the use of the RIT bag to bring a firefighter through a hole in a floor. While it is easy to train using several RIT members around the hole, the truth of the matter is the floor will not be able to hold the concentrated load of these rescuers. We know the floor is already weakened; a fellow firefighter has fallen through.

Our first efforts when working from above should be to give ourselves a safe working platform. Pull a couple of doors off their hinges and place them on the burned-out floor around the hole. In this way, the weight of the RIT members will be distributed. In a narrow hallway or corner of a room, you may be forced to use only one door.

Method 1. In this most simple evolution, one end of the RIT rope is anchored to wall studs. In photo 1, the wall is breached and the halligan passed through and turned sideways to give a solid anchor. The pulley is then passed down through the hole to the rescuer in the basement to hook up the victim. This gives rescuers a 2:1 mechanical advantage.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
While all members are standing, someone needs to reach down and grab the victim's SCBA.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
In zero visibility, the rescuer in the basement needs to be able to hook the victim's SCBA.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
Method 3

Method 2. In the process of performing these evolutions, it became evident that lifting a good-sized victim would require at least four firefighters. Between wet turnout gear and dead weight, we could be faced with a 300-pound victim. By placing an attic ladder or halligan hook on their shoulders (photos 3 and 4), two members create a high-point anchor. Not only does this tool allow them to stand back from the hole, it permits them to use their legs at the critical point.

The first two rescuers begin the evolution by kneeling as the other two members haul on the line. As the victim approaches the edge, a command is given for coordinating the final lift. All four members then walk the victim out of and away from the hole (photos 5, 6 and 7). Training is critical to insure that the standing maneuver occurs at the right time for fullest benefit.

Method 3. By now, it is apparent that quickly lifting a firefighter out of a hole will require strength and technique. In this final evolution, we use the same four rescuers, but without a mechanical advantage.

Photo by Mark J. McLees
Four different rescuers with differing strengths do not hamper this evolution. Each pulls at his own capacity. The victim will shoot out the hole like a missile if training in these methods is prioritized.

The key to this tactic is estimating the distance from the working platform down to the floor where the victim is lying. If it is an eight-foot ceiling, the team walks off eight feet of rope, then ties an overhand knot in the line. Then, the team marks off another eight feet of rope; add on four to six feet of pulling section; walk off another eight feet; and tie another overhand knot, creating a huge "W" with the rope (Photo 8). The two overhand knots are joined (photo 9) so that the rescuer in the basement has only to deal with one hook. On the working platform, there are now four separate lines coming from the hole (photo 10).

Coordinating the hauling is not as critical now. Each member can pull at will from four different corners of the hole. This brings the victim straight up the center of the hole. It must be stated that no matter which method is used, the rescuer in the basement is needed to steer the victim through the hole. Invariably, the SCBA tank will hang up on a floor joist. The basement member can attempt to guide the victim, even if only turning his legs. You must be able to do this in zero visibility.

Other Methods

There are many other ways to perform a rescue through a hole in the floor. Many departments use webbing and place the "handcuff knot" on the victim's arms. This is an excellent method, especially when the victim is not wearing an SCBA. The hook/pulley of the RIT bag is simply attached to the webbing. The more ways you know to perform this evolution, the better prepared you will be when faced with a situation that will tax you and your team.

The next installment will review methods used to remove a downed firefighter from a peaked or flat roof.

Mark J. McLees, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is captain of the Syracuse, NY, Fire Department's Rescue Company 1. Part 1 was in the April 2000 issue.