Enlarging Openings For Firefighter Removal

Photo By James Crawford

Have you ever wondered how you would remove a downed firefighter from a burning structure? Do you realize the difficulty that would be encountered with lifting an incapacitated firefighter out a window? I will discuss several options to assist the Rapid Intervention Team with removing a firefighter from a building utilizing a technique called "Enlarging Openings".

To ease and quicken removal time, a Rapid Intervention enlarged opening team should be established early on in the Mayday. This team will select and "open up or enlarge" an existing window or doorframe close to the rescue room.

Enlarged Openings can be made in metal and masonry structures but works best in wood frame construction. Use caution in selecting the opening for safety and do not choose the rescue room itself unless absolutely necessary. This will cause chainsaw bars to be entering through the interior walls close to the firefighter rescue creating an unsafe condition. Choose an adjoining room or area for the opening that is close and in as straight a line as possible with the rescue room so that the initial RIT that will be performing the drag will have as short a drag as possible with the least amount of turns.

The enlarged opening team should coordinate the opening with the interior RIT officer and IC. The enlarged opening process should be initiated as quickly as possible to ensure that the opening will be completed before the downed firefighter is dragged to the opening. Remember that the goal of the Rapid Intervention Team is to reduce the removal time wherever possible. To have the opening incomplete when the interior RIT drags the downed firefighter to it is defeating the purpose of the operation, all crews working the rescue must coordinate their efforts to be successful.

Photo By James Crawford

Once the removal path and exit point has been selected, the enlarged opening must be made. It is best if an existing opening is enlarged. This will involve cutting less area due to most of the opening already existing. If no pre-existing opening is present at the exit point, an enlarged opening can be made into the side of the structure.

Whenever any enlarged opening is made, a safety person must be placed on the interior of the building to keep interior firefighters away from the chainsaw bar that will be coming through from the outside of the structure.

Before the team starts the opening, they must assemble the minimum following equipment; two fire service type chainsaws (one primary and one backup), an 8-ft. pike pole, a sledgehammer or Denver tool, a pickhead ax, and an A-frame or attic ladder. When the team is ready to make the opening, they must go on air before they start their cuts. A large volume of smoke will come from the initial opening. The team must be able to continue their cuts and complete the opening before the downed firefighter is dragged to this exit point.

Once the team is on air, the window glass must be removed first, (or if enlarging a door, the door must be removed first). Try to pull as much of the glass outward as possible to eliminate the downed firefighter being dragged through the glass on the way out of the opening. Ensure that drapes and blinds are removed also so as not to get hung up on the chainsaw or exiting RIT members.

Photo By James Crawford

Next, send in the safety person using the A-frame or attic ladder. This safety person will sound the floor, check for victims and obstructions, keep the interior crews away from the saw operation, and visually assist the chainsaw operator from the inside. Now the cuts can be started. Always have a back up saw ready and use a back up person to guide the firefighter operating the chainsaw. This backup person can watch the ground behind the chainsaw operator for trip hazards.

While making your cuts, always be prepared for striking conduit, wiring, window weights, or piping. If you strike one of these objects with the chainsaw, it may cause saw kickback. It will also more than likely ruin your chain, thus one of the reasons for having a backup saw. Do not cut in-line with your body. Try to cut off to the side, which will reduce the chance of being struck by the chain.

The first series of cuts made are the "Low Sill Cuts". This series of cuts will cause for the entire sill area to be removed from the top of the sill to the floor creating an immediate removal path. The first saw cut should be a vertical cut downward from the top of the sill to the floor. When you feel the saw contact the floor, pull the bar out of the cut. Make this first vertical cut on the opposite side of the extension cut side. The second cut will be a horizontal cut started from the bottom of the first vertical cut about an inch or two above the floor. This cut is made second so that the weight of the sill piece does not push down onto the chainsaw bar and bind the chain. This would occur if both vertical cuts were made first. Continue the horizontal cut approximately 1 to 2 feet past the bottom point of the next vertical cut. This will set up the "Extension Cut". The extension cut will aid in the removal process by creating a larger opening to provide for more workspace or multiple removals. The extension cut should only be completed if the team has the time. An example would be if the downed firefighter has not been dragged to the removal point and the Low Sill Cuts have been accomplished. When the horizontal cut is complete, pull the chainsaw bar from the cut and place the chainsaw bar on the second Low Sill vertical cut. Make the cut downward to the floor completing the Low Sill cut. The interior safety person must hold onto the sill piece so that it does not fall either to the interior or exterior unexpectedly.

After the chainsaw operator has stepped to the side, the rest of the team can totally remove the cut out low sill piece. Ensure that this piece is placed completely out of the way so that it does not create a trip hazard. At this point you are at least ready to receive the downed firefighter if the interior team arrives. If the downed firefighter has not been brought to the opening, complete the extension cuts so that both interior and exterior crews will have more room to work the removal. Simply run a horizontal cut 4 to 6 feet above the lower horizontal extension cut until they are in line, then connect the two cuts with a vertical cut and remove the extension piece. The same policy applies to ensuring that this extension piece is placed completely out of the way.

Photo By James Crawford

The enlarged opening is now complete. In addition, the team should have a stokes basket ready at the enlarged opening to place the downed firefighter in. It is much easier, and quicker, for 4 to 6 firefighters to carry a firefighter victim in a stokes basket over a distance than to attempt a carry by the extremities. If the downed firefighter has still not made it to the opening, now is the time to clear debris, glass, etc. from the interior removal path. You should also clear the exterior removal path at this point such as moving small debris caused by the cutting operation, small trees or bushes, or any other object that may impede the exterior removal path. Keep in mind that the exterior removal path is from the enlarged opening to the ambulance, helicopter, or triage area. There could be quite a lot of obstructions (including people or fences) that may impede the transfer of the downed firefighter to medical transportation.

Don't get tunnel vision by paying attention only to the immediate enlarged opening area. Sizeup the entire exterior removal path. In conclusion, an enlarged opening can drastically decrease the removal time for a downed firefighter, increasing their chances of survival. We must become proficient with this technique and the use of power saws within this environment. You must also be ready to abandon this operation if it is taking to long or just is not working. Have a backup plan in place for this situation. Remember, no one is coming in for us, but us!

James K. Crawford is a firefighter with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire assigned to Truck Company #33 and a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine and Firehouse.com. He is a Fire Suppression Instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and the Assistant Chief of Training for the 171st Air Refueling Wing Fire Department, Pennsylvania Air National Guard-Pittsburgh. He is a graduate of the Pittsburgh Fire Academy and the Air Force Fire Academy spending four years on active duty as a firefighter. He has over 23 years experience in the career and volunteer fire service. Jim lectures nationally on the subject of Rapid Intervention Teams and is the President of Rapid Intervention Training Associates and founder of RapidIntervention.Com