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Recently, firefighters were killed at incidents where rapid intervention teams (RITs) were on the scene. The incidents in Passaic, NJ, and Phoenix are not the topic of this article, only the backdrop scenery. The fire service has embraced the need to have units on the fireground devoted to saving firefighters who become incapacitated and need assistance getting to safety.
The only issue to be considered here is, do we in the fire service understand what RITs are and what they should be able to accomplish or are we believing that having a RIT on the fireground allows us to continue to behave as though they make us invincible?
We seem to believe that if a rapid intervention team has been deployed, then no matter what happens, they will get us out. This misconception - along with some others may be leading firefighters to believe RIT deployment gives them invincibility. However, I have found that there are more myths being promulgated than verifiable facts. Let's look at some of these and see if you believe them:
Myth - One unit can perform rapid intervention if it is highly motivated and highly trained.
Fact - This is only true when the victim (not victims) is on the first floor of a small (less than 20 by 30 feet) structure, (preferably in the front room, without building component failures or the fire is not a factor. Otherwise, in my opinion, the effort will require multiple companies. Specifically, it is recommended that the FIRST rapid intervention team have the mission of finding the victim(s), assessing their condition, assessing the scene where they are located, providing initial self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) replacement, if needed, and calling for additional resources when needed.
The additional units can bring in protection hoselines or other equipment that is needed. They may also have to perform other operations such as breaching or shoring that may be required to extricate the firefighters.
Myth - Training for becoming a RIT member is lengthy and costly.
Fact - I have seen the gurus, in my opinion, for this regimen (John Salka, FDNY; Robert Cobb, Jersey City, NJ; Fred Endrikat, Philadelphia; and Mickey Conboy, FDNY) teach the evolutions over two days in a train-the-trainer situation. It is the drilling and practicing of the learned skills that takes the time. All of the required tenets for this operation are usually taught in a basic class at the training center during a rookie course. Basic and advanced search, teamwork, rope handling and building construction should be taught. If they are not taught, then such training should be started before a department begins thinking about RITs.
Myth - Large quantities of equipment are needed to perform RIT assignments.
Fact - ALL of the equipment needed to perform RIT assignments is probably on your apparatus now. The addition of a thermal imaging camera is helpful, but not essential to begin. Rope and basic connectors will be the only tools that may have to be purchased. Other tools such as exit markers and the like can be added as the funds become available.
Myth - Resources can be diverted from the original problem to become part of the RIT operation should the unthinkable happen.
Fact - To depend on this postulate is almost ludicrous. When an emergency like this occurs, time is the most important adversary. This work requires maximum effort and clear thinking. Dragging a 250-pound injured or unconscious firefighter is enough to tax anyone, let alone someone who has been aggressively combating a fire. The incident scene is too unpredictable to allow for multi-tasking when lives are at stake.
Myth - Rapid intervention will be a limited operation in scope or location.
Fact - When rapid intervention is needed at large structures - commercial, multiple occupied or high-rise - or there are multiple victims, then it is entirely possible that this operation under the incident command system will grow to be designated as either a group or division. Actually, I prefer it to be activated as a group from the beginning.
Myth - Rapid intervention operations require only one officer for command.
Fact - These evolutions may evolve quickly into complex and complicated events that must be accomplished in a compressed time frame. Therefore, they may require a complete and separate command structure within the already established mission-driven ICS to ensure the safety of all members of the rescue group/division and the proper deployment of resources.
Myth - The dispatching of a safety officer ensures the safety of firefighters on the fireground and that person should continue with that responsibility when a RIT operation takes place.
Fact - First, a single entity committed to the safety and well-being of the firefighters on an incident only works on paper, where too often we develop our standard operating procedures (SOPs). It simply cannot be accomplished physically. However, if a safety officer is in command of a safety group and can call for resources to be deployed as safety units, then you're on the right track.
To take the thought a little further, I believe that the safety officer should also serve as the RIT group leader. He or she should be an individual with rank and experience, and should remain at the command post monitoring a radio channel, if possible, separate from the fire channel being used to combat the incident. That person also can monitor progress and conditions. If the RIT takes action, he or she is already in the best position to facilitate the needs of the dedicated units.
Myth - A good incident commander (IC) can maintain control of a fire scene and a "Mayday" operation simultaneously.
Fact - Too often, these emergencies occur exactly at the most critical moment during a fire attack, when all resources have been deployed and are actively combating the fire. The IC is focused on the problems encountered and likely outcomes. To suddenly hand the IC another ball to juggle, this one with his or her own at stake, won't work no matter how experienced that person may be. To have another command figure to hand it off to has to be considered.
An even larger problem is controlling the other forces at the scene. Too often, well-intentioned but misguided freelancing takes place while all units attempt to "free their comrades," leading to a total breakdown in accountability, radios going down from too much traffic and unit separation, perhaps leading to additional injuries or deaths. The IC must get this control and accountability rapidly. Has your department regularly used accountability checks and how long does it take? Do you have established SOPs for rally points when an evacuation or "Mayday" has been declared?
I hope this column has caused you to think about what you are doing with rapid intervention teams. In memory of those who have died already, let's make sure we are not repeating the mistakes that killed them.
Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to Chief Concerns, Firehouse Magazine, 445 Broad Hollow Road, Melville, NY 11747.
Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officers Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University; has degrees in fire science, construction management and labor law; and holds a journeyman's card with United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.