Firefighter Survival - Part 2

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.

One issue that must be addressed when implementing a RIT policy is the attitude of the assigned RIT members. Every firefighter worth the title wants to get in and slug it out with the devil. That is not the job of the RIT! The RIT members must understand they've been entrusted with the life of every firefighter in the building. They must show up ready for this task properly equipped and then "stand fast," hopefully not being needed. This can create frustration since they are not allowed to "go play" but it is critical that they realize that "they are their brothers' keepers." Besides, they'll get their turn and someone else will be standing outside watching over them. This must be addressed in the RIT policy.

Also essential is having a standard policy that defines the basic duties, assignment, tools and position of the RIT In larger departments this is fairly easily accomplished. But in many cases the RIT will be coming from a neighboring department or some type of mutual aid agreement. Each participating organization must agree to provide the standard minimum crew with appropriate tools and training. The assignment of the RIT should be automatic, usually dispatched immediately upon receipt of a "working fire" signal. As soon as members are placed in harm's way, there should be some way to get them out. The agreement must be reciprocal in that each organization should know that it is just as likely to be the RIT as it is to require the RIT.

An important part of this agreement is a stipulation on when the RIT will be employed, what the chain of command is and when the RIT will be released from its duties. Naturally, firefighter safety is the primary goal of the RIT. That does not necessarily mean the RIT should never budge from the command post until a firefighter is down. Particularly on smaller buildings, the RIT could be employed to open up additional escape routes to help keep firefighters out of trouble in the first place, provided the team remains intact, ready to respond to any emergency. On larger buildings, however, such actions may take the RIT away from its area of responsibilities and could delay its rapid deployment.

Since the main task of the RIT is firefighter safety, the incident commander (IC) must avoid treating the RIT as just another staged unit in case of fire extension. This, however, is a fine line to walk in some cases. The IC must decide if firefighters will be endangered by fire extension while waiting for additional units to be employed. For example, the RIT may have to be deployed to put a vitally needed hoseline in place to protect firefighters' escape. It is better to keep firefighters out of trouble in the first place than to try to get them out after they're down. Put the fire out and everything else gets better!

An RIT should report to and be under the direct control of the IC or the operations officer if it is "forward deployed," as will be the case in a high-rise building, for example. It must be understood that RIT members are committed to their assignment and cannot be "picked up" by other officers for other tasks. That is a problem, particularly since the RIT often arrives when an incident is not going well and reinforcements are being sought. FDNY policy requires a dispatcher to notify both the IC and the assigned unit of its designation as the RIT. This reminds all of the importance of this task and establishes responsibility and accountability for these duties so crew members cannot get involved in firefighting and say they did not know they were supposed to "stand fast."

One way to curb the impact of the "standing fast syndrome," in which members watch everybody else "having fun" while they do nothing tangible, uses the RIT as an attack company if the incident escalates. In this case, a new RIT is designated as each additional alarm is transmitted and the previous RIT is then permitted to operate. This is not the best action from several standpoints but is probably the most practical alternative. If you choose to call a new RIT and use the prior RIT as an attack unit, you must wait for the new unit to arrive on scene, stage equipment and be briefed on conditions by the unit being relieved before the first unit leaves the command post. Otherwise, the later-arriving unit is at a disadvantage should something go wrong.

If the first unit is immediately deployed, there will be a several-minutes-long gap in RIT coverage at the time it is probably needed most. Yes, you need a truck upstairs to pull ceilings but be very, very careful about using an RIT for this purpose before it has been properly relieved. If it looks like the fire is starting to get away, that's when the RIT is most likely to be needed. Firefighters don't usually end up trapped at windows when everything has gone right! That is not to say the RIT must stay in the street until the last length of hose is packed away but make very sure the fire is "under control" and nothing is going to put firefighters at risk before you send the RIT in for overhauling.

Those are a few of the personnel and policy items to consider when implementing a RIT procedure. Next column I'll describe some of the tools and techniques needed to successfully implement a "rescue operation."

John Norman, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a captain with the FDNY, assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an instructor at the Nassau County, NY, Fire Service Academy and lectures nationally on fire and rescue topics. Norman is the author of Fire Officer's Handbook Of Tactics, which may be ordered by calling 800-752-9768.