Engaging in a firefighter rescue within a burning building will most likely be the hardest assignment that you will ever perform, both physically and mentally. Having the adequate manpower to take on this seemingly impossible task will be one of the key factors in whether you succeed with the rescue, or tragically fail. I will share with you my thoughts on what I believe to be the answer to the standard RIT response.
I strongly believe in what I call "the rule of three" which provides for a minimum of a 3-team RIT response or "fireground availability". I am not advocating that three dedicated rapid intervention teams physically standby on the fireground. There are too many fire departments already having a hard time assembling just one team. What I am referring to is having the plan and means of assembling these two additional teams quickly from the fireground when a 'MAYDAY' is announced.
Team 1 (RIT 1), obviously, will be the actual initial standby team. This team should be dispatched with the 1st alarm assignment to any reported structure fire so that they can be on the scene, set up, and ready to deploy as the 1st alarm suppression crews are advancing.
If you wait for a fire officer or apparatus to arrive on the scene to "confirm" a working fire before you dispatch the initial RIT, you are wasting valuable time that this team could be using not to mention the amount of time the fireground is without a RIT.
Ask yourself how long it will take to get the RIT on scene and set up using this approach, keeping in mind that the first 20 minutes of the fire are usually the most dangerous as far as accidents/injuries, disorientation's, and depleted air supplies are concerned. The initial RIT should be arriving on scene at the same time as, or shortly thereafter, the 1st alarm companies. If nothing is showing the team can simply be "returned in-service".
This initial RIT has the primary responsibility of establishing the following; a staging/standby area, sizing up the incident and building, ensuring the proper safety equipment has been placed such as a ladder to an upper floor window, identify/rectify hazards, monitoring the fireground radio frequency, and ensuring they are ready to deploy on a Mayday.
The teams responsibility if a "Mayday" occurs is to; deploy and conduct the search, locate the downed firefighter, create a defendable space around the victim, perform an assessment of the victim, provide an independent air supply to the victim, provide a sizeup to the IC, and initiate any extrication operation that would be required to prepare the firefighter for removal.
If this initial team can accomplish removal of the downed firefighter within the time span of their SCBA air supply, great. But chances are, after completing the above, their air supplies will have become depleted to the point that they must retreat from the structure. Therefore, the initial teams complement of tools should be basic forcible entry tools, a search line, a RIT bag of some sort with an SCBA rescue pack (with spare facepiece), wire cutters, webbing or sling-link MAST, a TIC if available, handlights, and portable radios. This first team must remember to keep it basic and light so that they can rapidly maneuver through the building and locate the distressed firefighter.
If the initial RIT deploys on a Mayday, this poses 3 critical issues that must be dealt with by the IC immediately:
First, a second RIT (RIT 2) must be dispatched if they can arrive quickly. If not, RIT 2 must be assembled from the fireground immediately to back up RIT 1.
Secondly, a third team (RIT 3) must be dispatched or assembled from the fireground to protect the remaining crews if fire, or other dangerous condition, is still present. If RIT 1 encounters an extrication situation inside the building, RIT 2 will be needed to carry the specialized rescue equipment to the rescue room.
This can be accomplished by simply following RIT 1's search line directly to the rescue room which is one of the reasons why the initial team should always "dump" a search line. RIT 2 will then assist RIT 1 with the extrication and prepare to relieve them when their air supplies deplete. RIT 2's complement of tools will be whatever RIT 1 is requesting so they don't have to leave the structure to get them, basic forcible entry tools (always to include a sledgehammer), and another TIC if available.
This requested equipment could be anything from hydraulic tools, airbags, or sawzalls to medical equipment or more SCBA rescue packs. I have found that loading this equipment onto a stokes basket and carrying it into the structure eases the trip to the rescue room. It also provides an option for removal by supplying a stokes basket to the interior in the event it would be needed.
Thirdly, the IC must request enough additional alarms to satisfy the manpower demands that this specific emergency will require. You must stack the deck in your favor as quickly as possible. In a firefighter rescue situation, it's best to have more than enough manpower available that can be staged than not enough.
To finish off this firefighter rescue concept, the third team (RIT 3) would become the actual standby RIT for the remaining fireground while the Mayday is being dealt with by RIT 1 and 2. We must not forget the ongoing firefight with the structure and the potential dangers it poses to the working crews.
It is imperative that personnel performing suppression activities press on aggressively during a Mayday. The quicker the fire is extinguished, the quicker smoke and heat will disperse from the rescue room, which is hindering the rescue operation. This is one of the reasons to have a dedicated RIT. It will give suppression personnel the confidence in knowing that a crew is always tending to the Mayday so that they may actively pursue extinguishment.
The last thing you want is firefighters abandoning nozzles or ventilation tasks to help with the rescue. RIT 3 is also poised to become the backup team for RIT 2 in the event the firefighter rescue is not progressing as smoothly as anticipated.
This procedure of "bumping or moving" rapid intervention teams closer towards the rescue room is quite the same principle as performing a "move up or transfer" of companies on a multiple alarm fire. Having this "back up for a back up" type approach during an actual Mayday will always leave the Incident Commander with a fresh rapid intervention team to deploy into the structure to complete the rescue operation as crews tire and deplete their air.
If it gets to the point of RIT 3 tiring or depleting their air supplies before the removal is complete, RIT 1 should be ready for re-deployment by this time in the rule of three rotation. You could also continue to dispatch or assemble more teams into the rotation. RIT 3's complement of tools would be the same as RIT 1's on their initial standby and any other equipment that RIT 2 would request.
The IC must always be aware of their manpower pool on the fireground. They must know where and what crews they can use to pull from the fire operations to assemble the rule of three. We must always be aware, and ready, to commit our manpower resources in a moments notice to assist in rescuing our own people. As the Incident Commander, if at any point during the firefight that you feel you do not have the adequate manpower to assemble the rule of three, you must request additional manpower to the scene to fill this void.
This truly should be one of our standard strategies on every fire for the protection of our firefighters. I am quite sure that an Incident Commander involved in a firefighter fatality fire would not want to have to admit that they did not have enough manpower on the scene to affect a firefighter rescue.
I must also make comment as to the size of the teams. I strongly recommend a 4-person team. It is neither too big nor too small. The labor is divided evenly amongst the team which allows the RIT officer to supervise the team, make critical decisions, and lend a hand as needed.
As always, procedures and kinds of tools assembled vary from area to area and incident to incident. Another issue that must be addressed is the command structure for this firefighter rescue operation. The Incident Commander will not be able to control both incidents.
Another Chief Officer must be assigned to command the rescue operation and rapid intervention teams. This officer would then report directly to the IC. Consider using the Safety Chief/Officer for this assignment. If they have been doing their job during the incident, they will have a good idea of the conditions of the building, fire, and manpower situation. It could even be a standard assignment for this position so that it is always known beforehand who will assume this role.
Keep in mind that an actual Mayday has occurred and your Firefighters lives are in extreme danger. You must immediately exercise every resource available to you in order to provide the chance of survival your firefighters in trouble will need. You must immediately place your best people in the areas that they will excel in to bring this firefighter rescue to a successful ending.
Think about it, the third string quarterback does not start in the Superbowl.
The rapid intervention teams will be fighting against a clock that will absolutely not stop. There are no "time outs or replays" during this event. You simply will not get a second chance. The scene that is unfolding before you is real and people that you know are quite possibly dying before you.
The actions, or in-actions, that you place in motion immediately following the announced Mayday will set the course of history, whether positive or negative. The American fire service must always place our soldiers in battle first. We are all good at rescuing civilians, but how good are we at rescuing our own? If you are not comfortable with the answer, now is the time to do something about it.
The fire service has the responsibility of rescuing our own people when they become trapped within our work environment. We simply cannot call on another agency to come in and get our people out safely. We must be committed to training ourselves to be the very best at taking care of our own, because the men and women that become trapped in these buildings are solely relying on us to be there to get them. This requires a great deal of manpower to accomplish. If you are not prepared for that fateful day right now it may already be to late, because it just might be arriving with the next sunrise.
This rule of three concept is the very minimum that your fire department should strive to perfect regarding rapid intervention operations. Don't ever get caught relying on only one rapid intervention team. If you have a firefighter entrapment in a burning building you will undoubtedly need at least 3 rapid intervention teams just to start the fight.
If it is your common practice now to have only one team available on the fireground, you may want to reconsider your rapid intervention strategy. If you choose to use "the rule of three" and become proficient at this 3-prong approach to firefighter rescue, I believe you will have the successful outcome you desire on your next "Mayday".
Let's just hope it never comes.
James K. Crawford
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