Don't Change Channels For Rapid Intervention

I’ve had many discussions and spent many hours thinking through the issue of radio tactics for fireground rapid intervention teams (RITs). Of course, like many other fire- and rescue-related tactics, there are many ways to perform RIT tactics with a variety of tools and equipment. When we talk about RIT, we are really talking about firefighter survival.

We all know that firefighters work in dramatically dangerous and rapidly changing environments – and when something goes wrong, firefighters can be injured, trapped, lost or killed. When a RIT is dispatched and deployed, the success of its operation could make the difference between a firefighter surviving or dying.

Rapid intervention teams are trained in numerous tactics and skills that are specifically designed for firefighter rescue. These include drags, lifts, carries, hoists, wall breaching, knot tying and much more. They are all important, very important, but not the focus of this column. The issue I’m discussing here is the use of radios and specifically the debate over whether to change the channel. Let’s look at this question.

Staying in contact

Of course, every firefighter and officer working inside a burning building is equipped with a radio. This is not up for discussion and if you are not doing this, you missed one of my previous columns. So we have several teams of firefighters, inside a burning building, performing various engine and ladder company tactics on various floors and outside the structure. Suddenly, a Mayday is transmitted for a firefighter who is lost in the basement and the RIT is deployed:

1. Should the RIT enter the building on a different channel from all other operating units, including the lost firefighter?

2. Should the RIT enter on the same channel the lost firefighter is on and all of the other firefighters change to a secondary tactical channel?

3. Should the RIT enter and operate on the same channel as the lost firefighter, along with all of the other operating firefighters?

First, let’s talk about the lost firefighter. We are not going to ask a distressed, lost, trapped or injured firefighter to change channels. You agree, I’m sure. So should we order all of the other firefighters on the scene to switch channels and leave the RIT and the lost firefighter on the original tactical channel? Why? This first question, why, is the most important. A RIT operation is important, but I don’t know why the team needs its own radio channel.

At many of the fires I commanded, numerous companies were performing numerous tactics and they were all on the same channel. The first engine moving in and extinguishing the fire, the second engine assisting with a supply line operation, the first ladder company performing a primary search on the fire floor, a team of outside vent firefighters performing ventilation, a team of firefighters on the roof doing a survey and performing vertical ventilation or even a rescue via ladder or life-saving rope, the second ladder company entering and searching the floor above the fire and the units and tactics go on and on. And they are all on the single primary tactical channel.

Not only can the RIT blend into the existing radio channel, but ordering anyone on the scene to change channels is asking for trouble. Firefighters wearing radios under their coats or in pockets now must locate the radio, feel for the channel-selection knob and move it to the new tactical channel. You probably can’t see the knob or the numbers, so the firefighters may have to count how many clicks they need to turn the knob. We have a better chance of ending up with a firefighter or two becoming isolated on the wrong new channel than anything else.

Another problem with having two separate radio channels in operation is that lots of information will have to be relayed from channel to channel. If there is a problem involving the attack hoseline that could endanger the RIT or the lost firefighter, this information will have to be transmitted to command, who will have to either physically or via another radio relay to the RIT channel for their safety. If the RIT needs the help of a company or firefighter not on the RIT channel, it will have to ask for that assistance on its channel, then the message will have to be relayed to command so they can contact their unit on the other tactical channel. The “change your channel” concept is dangerous, cumbersome, impractical and unnecessary.

If you want to ensure your RIT can operate effectively, then train and practice with the RIT as another team on the primary tactical channel where a single commander can control communications and every other unit can continue operations with a seamless single fireground radio channel.