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In my July 1997 column, I outlined some of the topics and skills which must be taught to all of our members if we wish to avoid a tragedy. As I mentioned, the focus of survival training should include three main categories: hazard awareness, escape training and rescue training. The primary emphasis, of course, should be on avoiding a problem in the first place: hazard awareness and escaping on your own, if possible.
Unfortunately, firefighters still end up in life-threatening circumstances trapped, overcome, overrun by fire, etc. and only the actions of other firefighters can save their lives. Hence, the need for a rapid intervention company or team (RIT).
In its most basic form, the need for an RIT goes right back to the minimum staffing standards that have been fought over for many years now: the National Fire Protection Association's NFPA 1500 and most recently the proposed NFPA 1200. Both documents simply formalize an inescapable fact: to rescue people, be they firefighters or civilians, or accomplish any other task, you must have able-bodied people! The fireground that I know will never in my lifetime be a place where a trapped firefighter is going to get out of trouble simply by saying, "Beam me up, Scotty!" Somebody must go in and get that firefighter, hopefully alive. If you don't have the people, the trapped firefighter dies. It is as simple as that.
Makeup Of The RIT
Not all RITs are created equal! Nor should they be. NFPA 1500 requires that at least a two-person RIT be available in the initial stages of an incident. At larger buildings, and as the incident escalates, this number may become inadequate. In fact, a two-person crew will have a great deal of difficulty in removing an unconscious firefighter from anywhere but the first floor or another area where a simple drag can be used. Designating a two-person ambulance crew as your RIT may look OK on paper but will be woefully inadequate in case a firefighter needs rescue. Get a fully staffed fire company (or two two-person or three-person companies) as your RIT and make sure the members know their job.
"Easier said than done," you say, "we have only four companies in our department." My answer is simple: CALL MORE. Whether via mutual aid, automatic assignments or recall of off-duty personnel, you must provide this capability. You can do it early, in time to rescue anyone who needs assistance, or you can "play the odds" and wait until after things have gone wrong. But either way you'll need help if the incident escalates. The question is, do you call them in time to avert a tragedy or to recover a body?
In the FDNY, we have had cases when firefighters' lives were saved by RITs and/or assigned rescue companies. The RITs have proven their worth many times in the nearly 10 years they have been in place. The same is true in many cities across America. So how do you make this concept work for you? There's more to it than just adding another unit to the assignment. The four prerequisites to a successful RIT operation are: people, policies, tools and techniques.
As I pointed out, people are the most important resource. You must arrange for a team (I believe four people is the absolute minimum to carry out a successful rescue of a downed firefighter, in simple circumstances) to be immediately available at every working fire or special operation. In the past, the FDNY designated an engine company for this task. The department currently assigns a ladder company, which is a far better choice. Ladder company members often have the experience of removing civilians and are more often equipped with the basic tools needed for this critical task, i.e., radios, lights suited for hands-free use, forcible entry tools, rope, ladders, etc.