Rapid Intervention Teams

The deputy chief is standing in front of a five-story factory building; several minutes ago, heavy fire was belching from the first-floor loading dock and storage area. Most of the visible fire has been knocked down, the truck companies are opening up and the rescue company reports the primary search is negative.

Photo by Robert Cobb
The purpose of a rapid intervention team is to provide personnel for the rescue of firefighters if the need arises.

The second-alarm companies are checking for extension on the upper floors, stretching additional lines and venting. The situation looks good; no additional units will be needed. A progress report indicates that all companies are working and the fire situation is, "probably will hold with the present assignment." Most of the acrid black smoke has turned white and is lazily drifting out of the windows, with the exception of the third floor, where one window near the middle of the building is still puffing black. The incident commander (IC) calls the third battalion chief and requests a company to check out the area. The next radio transmission is an urgent, "Mayday! Mayday! We're lost and running out of air in the third floor."

As the IC stares at the third-floor window, three members of Truck 7 appear, their hands pulling at the heavy steel wire mesh covering the window. The IC knows he needs a ladder placed quickly, as well as a saw with a metal cutting blade. As he scans the street for a company to help, he sees only spectators. Finally, several members come racing around the corner of the building and the deputy chief points to the members in distress.

The black smoke issuing over the trapped firefighters' heads is changing to a dull orange. Several members sprint to the nearest truck company for a ladder and a firefighter begins exchanging the wood-cutting blade on the saw for a metal cutting blade. As the ladder is being placed on the building and the saw is started, heavy fire blows out the third-floor window.

The rescue of firefighters in a burning building is time sensitive. The purpose of a rapid intervention team is to provide personnel for the rescue of firefighters if the need arises. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500 Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program provides information on the requirements for rapid intervention teams:

  • The fire department shall provide personnel for the rescue of members if the need arises.
  • One or more rapid intervention teams will be assigned, based on the needs of the incident.
  • Minimum of two members.
  • Appropriate protective gear, including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), personal alert safety system (PASS) devices and any specialized rescue equipment specific for the operation.

The following should also be considered when implementing a rapid intervention team:

  • Location. On arrival, the rapid intervention team reports to the area of the IC and remains in visual or verbal contact with the IC at all times; this means the team should always stay at the front of the incident near the command post.

Common sense prevails. At a high-rise incident the team reports to the appropriate area lobby command post or operations post. There may be incidents that cover a large geographical area; in such a case the IC may assign the rapid intervention team to a sector or division.

  • Tasks. The primary task of the rapid intervention team is to respond to any firefighter reported in distress. Generally the member or members in distress are in one of two situations:
    1. Trapped in a collapse. This could be as small as a ceiling collapse in a 10-by-15-foot room or the sudden collapse of an entire wall or building.
    2. Disoriented and lost in the building. In reviewing case studies, it is estimated that up to 20 percent of fireground fatalities were related to firefighters becoming lost or disoriented in a building.

Photo by Robert Cobb
An important tool for the team is the search rope, marked at progressive lengths with knots, with a clip at each end and in a carrying bag.

Another task the team can perform is to assess the need for ground and aerial ladders. Upon arrival, team members should place a minimum of one ground ladder on the fire building to the fire floor or floor above and to the front of any involved exposure, regardless if a ladder is in place prior to their arrival. Additionally, if the truck is in front of the building and the first- or second-due truck crew didn't have time to place the aerial, the rapid intervention team must put the aerial up.

Anything that can be done to increase firefighters' chances of escaping from the building when time becomes critical should be attempted. Every ladder or aerial device placed on the building is another "fire escape." If no ladders are up, the chances of rescuing a member who shows up at a window may be near zero. If placing one or two ladders increases the odds even 1 percent, it's worth doing. The rapid intervention team will be the IC's first offensive step in the direction of the member in need. One advantage of having the team available is that it will give the IC a moment to assess the availability of other companies to assign to the rescue and call for additional help. Everyone at the incident cannot drop what they are doing and become involved in the search and rescue. There are critical tasks that must continue, such as hoseline operation and ventilation.

The rapid intervention team should also assist the IC with monitoring fireground radio transmissions. We all know how loud the scene of a fire can get outside fire alarms sounding, the apparatus engines whining, large hose streams and all of the typical fireground sounds may interfere with the IC's ability to monitor all transmissions. This task can ensure calls for help will not go unheard.

  • Tools. The members of the rapid intervention team should have a variety of truck company tools flat-head ax, sledge hammer or maul, halligan tool, hook, etc., search rope, portable radios, saw and handlights.

The key word here is rapid; the team members shouldn't be loaded down like pack mules. The IC must anticipate the need for additional equipment, such as a first-responder kit and spare SCBA. Other firefighters should be staged with any other specialized equipment that your department has, such as a thermal imaging camera, air bags or hydraulic rescue tools. Most departments carry specialized equipment on rescue trucks or in command vehicles, and any company that may be used as a rapid intervention team must be familiar with this equipment.

Photo by Robert Cobb
On arrival, firefighters assigned to the rapid intervention team assess the need for forcible entry equipment.

Photo by Robert Cobb
The search rope will give the team a gauge on the distance traveled and bolster members' confidence searching large, undivided areas.

The search rope is one of the most important tools for the team to utilize. It should be long enough for the search area, 150 feet minimum, with a clip at each end to safely tie off or extend the rope, and should be in a carrying bag which will easily deploy the rope. The rope should be marked at progressive lengths; consecutive knots at least every 20 feet will give the search team a gauge on distance traveled. Also, knowing the distance traveled into a building may assist other crews if a wall must be breached from outside the search area to extricate victims quickly. Short branch lines can be used to expedite a large area search. Rapid intervention team members can clip onto the main search line and sweep an area 15-20 feet out to the side and safely return. The simple tool will greatly assist members in meeting their primary search objective safely.

  • Response. The rapid intervention company should respond as soon as a working fire is reported. In large departments the IC may assign this task to a first-alarm company if it is not needed initially. Several departments with limited resources have a mutual aid company automatically dispatched to working fires. Some departments use the rapid intervention team for relief purposes after the fire is under control and there is no danger of collapse or smoke condition to cause firefighters problems.

Many recent case studies recently indicate firefighters are being killed and seriously injured during the initial stages of the fire. Some of the contributing factors are:

  • Energy-efficient windows. At a recent job, the first-in company reported very light smoke showing but as the firefighters made the fire floor they were faced with one apartment fully involved and fire into the public hallway. The thermal-pane windows held the fire inside, out of view and created a greater danger to firefighters.
  • Older buildings that have deteriorated. Many cities and towns have vacant and unsecured buildings that have been vandalized and are open to all weather conditions. These buildings may collapse much sooner than expected, trapping firefighters early.
  • Lack of manpower on the initial response. Fire departments, both volunteer and career, respond to incidents every day with limited resources. The situation becomes dangerous when the team concept or buddy system is discarded and firefighters become single resources during the initial stages of a fire.
  • Lightweight truss construction. This is being utilized in commercial buildings and private dwellings for floor and roof construction. Early collapse of sections of floors is becoming a common problem.
  • Lack of training. It is necessary to continually train with the equipment available to us, such as how to operate PASS alarms in emergency situations and knowing proper emergency rapid procedures. Many firefighters are getting lost or disoriented during primary searches.
  • Replacement. If the rapid intervention team is utilized for its intended purpose or if the IC must on a rare occasion use them for firefighting, another company must replace it. The IC should anticipate the need for additional help and have companies staged for possible tactical assignments.

Plan For Emergencies

Photo by Robert Cobb
On arrival, the rapid intervention team reports to the area of the incident commander and remains in visual or verbal contact with command at all times.

Think ahead. If upon arrival at a fire in a commercial building you as a member of a rapid intervention team see wire mesh or steel bars on all windows, change the blade on the saw to prepare for metal cutting operations. If the drop ladder on the front fire escape is still up, have a member of the team pull it down. Picture what would happen if several companies were attempting to evacuate a collapsing building via the fire escape. If you see a crew struggling with a 35-foot ladder in front of the building, help stabilize the ladder and return to your position.

Let's look back on the fire scenario at the beginning of the article. As the IC stares up at the third floor window, three members of Truck 7 appear, their hands pulling at the heavy steel wire mesh covering the window. The IC knows he needs a ladder placed and a saw with a metal cutting blade quickly. As he scans the street for help, he sees the rapid intervention team (whose members should have placed a ground ladder to the second floor on arrival and during their initial size-up spotted the wire mesh on the windows and have already changed the saw blade).

The rapid intervention team was monitoring the radio and one member is already ascending the ladder with the saw. The captain steadies the ground ladder while the other member of the team swings the aerial down from the floor above. The wire mesh is cut from the window as the black smoke over the trapped firefighters heads changes to dull orange, as one member of Truck 7 hastily steps onto the ground ladder and heads down the other two members of Truck 7 dive head first onto the aerial just as heavy fire blows out the third-floor window.

We can all recount stories of buddies being trapped or disoriented and lost in a fire building. Most of the stories have happy and sometimes comic endings but for nearly 100 firefighters a year the story has a tragic ending.

Robert Cobb, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is captain of Rescue Company 1 of the Jersey City, NJ, Fire Department and ex-chief of the Dumont, NJ, and West Milford Township, NJ, volunteer fire departments. Cobb is a certified New Jersey Fire Instructor Level II and incident management instructor for the New Jersey State Police Office of Emergency Management. He has been a consultant and lecturer on a wide range of fire service topics.