Rapid Intervention Teams: Not Just For Big Cities

Patrick Pauly outlines staffing, training and equipment needs of volunteer firefighters who are assigned to operate as members of these lifesaving rescue teams.


The first-alarm companies are on scene and a second alarm is enroute. The first-due truck reports "all clear on Division 1, primary search heading for Division 2." The first 1 3/4-inch handline has been charged and the second line is being stretched. A saw has just been started on the roof...


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The first-alarm companies are on scene and a second alarm is enroute. The first-due truck reports "all clear on Division 1, primary search heading for Division 2." The first 1 3/4-inch handline has been charged and the second line is being stretched. A saw has just been started on the roof, indicating the second-due truck company is about to begin topside ventilation.

Then it happens. A large volume of fire bursts out a window on side A from Division 2. What appeared to be almost under control is now out of control. And then the words come. "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Truck 1-4 crew has been separated, two members are no longer visible, we're on Division 2."

What now? Who will do what? Can we fix this? Everyone is probably OK, we just need to count heads and regroup, right? In many cases, a rapid intervention team (RIT) would be summoned to enter Division 2. After all, that's what the big-city career fire departments do these days.

But what if this fire is not in a big city? What if it's in a volunteer department's coverage area, miles from the closest career fire department? No RIT, right? "We can't stand a rapid intervention crew on standby," someone says. Or, "We don't have enough interior firefighters to spare," another member argues. Or a chief officer contends, "If it's a working fire, we'll need the mutual aid companies to help do truck work, or back us up, or provide a water supply."

Fires Don't Ask Questions

While many of these arguments are true, the fact remains that no fire ever asks the following questions when we arrive: Are you paid or volunteer? Are you going to have a rapid intervention crew today? Should I wait until your next-due companies arrive?

"Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program" reports about firefighter line-of-duty deaths issued by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) tell us that volunteer firefighters are being killed in structural fires much the same as career firefighters. Reports of 25 (non-heart attack) firefighter deaths from 1998 through 2001 at the scenes of structure fires indicate 10 volunteer firefighters died. Those of us who live and work in areas where volunteer fire departments respond to calls are in need of firefighter rescue teams just like our paid colleagues. When things turn sour at a structure fire, it does not matter if the firefighters are getting paid or not. No ceiling collapse, no weakened floor, no flashover is thinking about the pay status of a firefighter.

The ability to have a RIT at your structure fires depends upon pre-planning, like every other thing you do. Today's volunteer fire chief typically has three to six engines, one or two trucks, maybe one rescue company, an EMS crew and possibly tankers, if located in a rural area, responding on a first alarm for structure fires. This is a result of history, but history tells the chief that there are no guarantees regarding how many firefighters will respond at any given time of day.

The chief's problem is not knowing how many pieces of apparatus will respond in time to keep the fire to the floor of origin or even the building of origin. Consequent-ly, the chief writes the box alarms to adequately address the needs for a typical structure fire, adding extra pieces of each type of equipment to ensure the fire gets an appropriate response with enough firefighters to begin initial operations. Daytime (7 A.M. to 5 P.M., Monday through Friday) is typically the worst time for volunteer fire departments and for this reason some fire chiefs even have an additional response during those hours.

Thinking Creatively

Getting a RIT to the scene requires similar creative tactics for the volunteer fire chief, who must consider how many or which companies are needed to ensure that enough help is on the scene to provide a standby rescue team. In some areas additional help may be nearby and plentiful, but in many other places it is sparse and a distance away.

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