Rapid Intervention Teams

Robert Cobb outlines the role performed by a fireground unit that may be a firefighter's only chance for survival.


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...


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  • 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

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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.