Rapid Intervention Teams: Not Just For Big Cities

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.

We must compare risks vs. benefits: do we continue to rely upon the nearest departments for first- and second-alarm firefighting support, or do we use one of them as a RIT? If possible, consider using what may have traditionally been a third-alarm or special-call department as your RIT company. This allows your typical first- and second-alarm companies to continue to provide firefighting capabilities and also provides for a firefighter rescue team early in the incident.

The deciding factor in this situation may be the distance the designated RIT company must travel. Certain areas in Pennsylvania, for example, use several stations or departments to fulfill their needs, including a RIT at confirmed structure fires. This is done either on a box alarm card specifically stating what company will be the RIT, or by designation of the incident commander during response. In other areas in Pennsylvania rapid intervention services are provided by members of a RIT that come from several stations in different municipalities forming the team. These are dispatched as a RIT and respond in various vehicles per their standard operating procedures (SOPs). They train together, practicing the skills and techniques required to perform firefighter rescues.

There are other questions that may need to be carefully studied. Does your dispatch center allow for or understand the idea of standby teams for the purpose of firefighter rescue? Probably, some personnel are familiar with the concept, while others - including management - may not be. Your request to have a RIT dispatched could cause new and challenging changes in their operation. Training all employees of the dispatch center may be necessary.

Do you currently have an advanced life support (ALS) response with your fire department on a structure fire? Although it might not be standard procedure now, it needs to be put in place to further solidify the RIT concept. If a firefighter becomes lost, injured or trapped, a rescue team on scene may be the first step in his or her survival. Recognize, however, that the best possible chance for any human to survive a traumatic injury or event is to have ALS-trained personnel standing near the exit when that firefighter is removed. This may create additional strains when dispatch centers that do not have multiple ALS services close by or willing to go to fires and "wait around."

Rescue Teams' Importance

How do other fire departments or companies in your area feel about the idea of firefighter rescue teams? Educating the officers and firefighters of the surrounding mutual aid fire departments is a giant step. We have to verify that everyone understands the idea. Next, we should convince them that it is not only a good idea, but also a necessity. Then everyone works on procedures to make rapid intervention teams possible.

The most challenging part of that may be convincing people to take the training. All too often, we agree to do something, but fail to get the required training to do it safely and correctly.

Rapid intervention training is provided in many different ways by plenty of very good instructors. Private contractors, state training agencies, regional fire schools and individual fire service personnel teach techniques and concepts needed to perform this vital service. There are numerous different ways to do many of the skills needed to be proficient at saving one of your personnel. Different techniques have been developed by fire and rescue personnel utilizing civilian rescue skills and modifying them as necessary. Still other procedures were created after tragedies have taken the life of a firefighter in a different or challenging location.

Equipment is another concern for firefighter rescue teams. Although most volunteer or small career fire departments probably have the necessary equipment in their current inventory, some "specialty items" are also nice to have. While staged at a structure fire, the RIT should assemble forcible entry tools (irons), pickaxes, pike poles, spare self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), a chain or circular saw, and maybe a fire extinguisher. Some other items that may not be in every engine or truck, but are recommended, include a thermal imaging camera, several bags of rope, individual ropes and webbing, pulleys, carabiners, hydraulic rescue tools with hand pumps, various-size ladders (including a folding or specialty ladder) and a Stokes basket.

It is important that each member of the RIT has a portable radio and two different sources of light. Those items that are not readily available in one fire department may be found in another one close by. This may assist or encourage neighboring departments to form a rapid intervention team.

Be Ready To Save a Life

The concept of standby rescue teams is certainly not a new idea, nor a career fire department function only. It is, however, a service that continues to be largely ignored or given only "lip service." Many small career fire departments have inadequate resources to provide their own RIT, yet labor contracts may limit use of outside volunteer departments from responding to their communities. In other municipalities, firefighters respond and stand by as a RIT, but do not stage near the structure, do not equip a staging area for RIT operations, or worse yet have little or no specific training as firefighter rescuers.

Only when a firefighter is lost or trapped does it become painfully apparent that the RIT is not prepared. Don't be one of the many fire departments throughout North America that learn how important rapid intervention teams are only after it is too late. Stand up at your next fire department or county chiefs meeting and spout off about firefighter rescue. The life you save could be your own.

Patrick Pauly is a 32-year veteran of the fire service, employed full-time as a Fire Service Education Specialist at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, concentrating on structural firefighting, safety and survival, and firefighter rescue. He spent 31 years in the Lewistown, PA, Fire Department, the last seven as deputy chief, and is now active with the West Granville Fire Company. Pauly has led a group to form a county rapid intervention team for Mifflin County, PA. He is nationally certified as a Firefighter III, Fire Instructor II and Fire Officer I, and is a state-certified EMT. Pauly holds an associate's degree in computer science technology.