Expert: RIT Training A Key in Preventing Maydays

Honing RIT skills is critical because Maydays are always called at the extremes and require special skills that are not used often.

While preventing a Mayday is the ultimate goal, unpredictable events happen at fire scenes. That's why it's important for fire department to have well-trained rapid intervention teams, or crews, available for immediate deployment.

Asking for a RIT deployment is never a good thing. It's always a reactionary measure to help mitigate an unwanted condition during the worst conditions possible.

"You know something bad has happened when a firefighter goes down and we have to go in there and be quick, working in a hostile environment," said Raul Angulo, the captain of Seattle Fire Department's Ladder 6.

That's why Angulo, who has 33 years in the fire service, is constantly teaching and refreshing RIT skills to the firefighters in his company. He has also been an instructor at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, at the Fire Department Instructors' Conference in Indianapolis as well as the National Fire Academy and fire departments nationwide and in Canada and Mexico.

Honing RIT skills is critical to successful rescues, Angulo said because Maydays are always called at the extremes and require special skills that, thankfully, are not used often.

In Seattle, Angulo said every confirmed fire requires an engine company of four firefighters and the engine to be prepared for RIT work.

Larger incidents require rapid intervention groups (RIGs) which is comprised the original RIT assignment two additional engines and a truck company with a total of 12 people, he said.

Every firefighter in Seattle must be proficient at a RIT level, but there are only a few selected for the RIG assignments, Angulo said, noting that his station, which is a "double house" is frequently part of RIG assignments. To make sure they're ready at all times, Angulo has at least monthly training exercises on rapid intervention – a department requirement.

Training focuses on thermal imaging camera (TIC), a rescue air breathing kit, rope lines and other related tools, he said.

"We time ourselves to see how quickly we can get set up," Angulo said, adding that it's mostly to measure efficiency. While it's part of the department's evaluation criterion, there's no established window of time that the exercise must be completed.

Earlier this month, Angulo built a training exercise around a 2007 Mayday situation in Houston where Capt. Eric Abbt was trapped on the fifth-floor of a commercial building while trying to rescue a woman caught by fast moving fire.

Angulo said he wanted to make sure his crew realized it takes time to affect a rescue of a down firefighter, but they have to be quick and efficient to save people. That's why training is so important, he added.

To bring the message home, Angulo said he called Abbt and had him talk to his crew about the Mayday.

"It was the first time he ever talked to anyone outside of Houston about the event," Angulo said, noting that it was done on a speaker phone in a "safe" environment where only his crew and a few captains and lieutenants so the discussion could be frank and candid.

"I used it as a case study," Angulo said. "What no one realized is that it took 27 minutes to get him out."

Proficiency matters in cases like that and Angulo said he's found one of the weakest links in almost any RIT deployment is establishing air for the down victim.

He said firefighters are very well versed in donning their own facepiece, but he's found that not many practice putting on mask on other firefighters.

"It's hard, especially with gloved hands," Angulo said. "The victim may be face down too, or on his back or where ever and you have to lean over and put the mask on in zero visibility."

In Seattle, firefighters must don their SCBAs in one minute or less and some firefighters can do it in 30 seconds, Angulo said, noting that practice is the key to achieving those times. That same practice must be used for putting on facepieces for others.

"You don't want to go to all that work to get to him, get him out only to lose him because you couldn't get air to him quickly enough," he said.

Removing a victim is also a skill that must be practiced routinely, he said. It's not easy to drag a firefighter who may weigh up to 300 pounds with gear and, again, practicing techniques helps.

Angulo recommends the RIT bring in Stokes baskets, or a SKED, or even a simple backboard to make it easier to drag the firefighter on.

"A Stokes basket is worth its weight in gold," Angulo said, noting that most firefighters wouldn't want to bring in something that big and heavy trying to affect a rescue quickly. However, the time on saved removing the victim is worth it.

In Seattle, Angulo said he makes his crew practice removing firefighters on ladders. After trying all the possible positions for taking an unconscious firefighter down a ladder, Angulo said he's found that putting a firefighter back to the rungs with his legs over the rescuer's shoulders is the best and safest way to effectively extract a victim. He said the rescuer can keep both hands on the ladder and the victim's weight is principally supported by the ladder. If the victim shifts, it only requires the rescuing firefighter to lean into the ladder to correct shifting.

Training and preparation are the keys to successful intervention, Angulo said.

And there are lots of resources available to help fire departments establish RIT teams and train them properly.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) addresses RITs in its 1710 standards and the United States Fire Administration has a variety of documents, research papers and sample SOPs departments can use as models.

The Department of Defense Fire and Emergency Services, the National Fire Academy and Department of Homeland Security are just a few other agencies with information readily available and in most cases, free of charge.

Departments looking to develop their own RIT procedures should not overlook their neighbors and state agencies for help and use them as resources. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses the term "RIT" to describe firefighters dedicated to responding to down firefighters in the National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) training, many departments and fire officials use the term RIT. The meaning is the same regardless of whether RIT or RIT is used.

While each agency and department might have nuanced takes on the theme of rapid intervention, they all focus on the need to have people dedicated and ready to respond immediately upon the recognition that firefighters are in trouble.

An initial rapid intervention crew most often requires a minimum of two firefighters, operating as team with the proper equipment (including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) and training positioned in an area outside of the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) atmosphere. They are, by design, to be used as a temporary measure

That initial team must be available at all times and direct communications with each other and command to be available in rescuing the interior team should a Mayday be called.

A full RIT has a minimum of four firefighters, who are also properly trained and equipped and assembled in a designated area with the sole purpose of rescuing fellow firefighters in deteriorating conditions.

That team must not have any other duties or assignments and in large, multiple alarm fires, more than one RIT may be needed. It will be incumbent on the incident commanders to resist reassigning RITs, especially in times when staffing levels are reduced.

By most accounts, equipping a RIT need not be an expensive undertaking as basic firefighting tools comprise the bulk of what the team needs.

Firefighters serving on a RIT need full turnout gear, including SCBAs and they'll need radios, a Thermal imaging camera, handlights, forcible entry tools, rescue ropes, a RIT kit bag (which should have a spare bottle a spare facepiece, breathing buddy system and harnesses.)

The team may also need, depending on the circumstances, saws, cutting torches, ladders and specialized equipment that can be on a rescue truck or other apparatus on the scene.

The most vital and basic tools should be at the ready on tarps at the RIT staging area while the other, heavier equipment can stay on accessible apparatus that's close by.

With well-trained personnel identified and equipment secured and in place, the decision to deploy the RIT when appropriate should be made quickly and efficiently.

The incident commander will now have to focus on locating and extRITating the lost or trapped firefighter, while maintaining fire suppression to protect the firefighters on the rescue mission as well as the member in the Mayday situation. While it might not be easy, commanders will have to be prepared to "write-off" other part of the structure to focus on saving the firefighter.

According to a 2003 U.S. Fire Administration technical report "Rapid Intervention Teams and How to Avoid Needing Them," incident commanders need to practice continual risk assessment.

"Incident commanders should operate with the rule, "Do not risk a life for what is already lost,'" the report says. "Good training and self discipline will help prevent firefighters from needing to call a mayday, will better prepare them if they do face a mayday situation, and will prevent additional firefighters from becoming victims."