Rapid Intervention Teams: Are You Prepared For The Search?

You are a firefighter assigned to a rapid intervention team (RIT) at a working house fire. Your team has set up its tool-staging area and completed its size-up of the fire building. A ground ladder has been thrown to the second floor of side 1 by the truck company crew and the rapid intervention team leader has reported to the incident commander (IC) that the team is in place and ready to go.

As you settle into your staging area for your standby duties, you scan the fireground for potential hazards. Everything seems to be going well with the operations as you scan the crews for familiar faces.

Suddenly, you hear a loud rumble in the fire building. You see a large column of fire rise into the sky as a portion of the roof collapses into the attic. You have a terrible feeling that somewhere in the path of that collapse was a firefighter. As you and the other members of the RIT make your way toward the fire building, you ask yourself:

  • How do we begin to conduct this search?
  • Are firefighters trapped in the attic or did they fall into the second floor?
  • If firefighters are in the attic, are they trapped by the roof collapse in the fire area?

This scenario (and many more like it) lurks just around the corner on every fireground. We, as firefighters and fire officers, must be prepared.

Reasons For Deployment

There are many reasons why a RIT is deployed on the fireground. Typically, any sudden hazardous event such as a collapse, flashover, backdraft or rapid increase in fire will put a RIT into action. But it is the more common occurrence of a firefighter becoming lost or disoriented in a fire building that will put a team into action most often.

Another occurrence that will activate a RIT is a "Mayday" radio transmission. Team members should constantly monitor the fireground radio frequency for calls for assistance because they may get only one chance to hear a "Mayday" over the radio. The firefighter in trouble could become unconscious before being able to transmit another "Mayday" or report an approximate location.

A rapid intervention team could also receive orders from the IC to deploy because an accountability check reveals that a firefighter is missing. Team members could even activate themselves based on their visual observations, such as seeing a firefighter hanging from a window or a crew attempting to perform an emergency wall breach to escape from the interior of a fire building.

Pre-Search Procedures

When a RIT is deployed to a fire building for an emergency, team members must accomplish several tasks before entering the structure.

First, try to continue or establish radio communications with the firefighters in trouble. This procedure could give you pertinent information about the firefighters or crew in trouble, such as its location, type of injuries or level of consciousness, type and extent of entrapment, the amount of air left in self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and type of SCBA being used. It is important that you gain as much of this information as possible before an injured firefighter becomes unconscious or unable to use a radio.

The RIT leader should also ask the firefighter to switch to a tactical radio channel, if possible. This will permit communications without interference from other fireground radio traffic.

While the RIT leader is obtaining this information, team members should be selecting and gathering their entry tools from the staging tarp. The initial entry team should select only basic forcible entry tools so as not to slow the team during the search. If larger or specialized tools are needed after the size-up, a second team should enter with this equipment. If the RIT is using a thermal imaging camera, it is at this point that it should be turned on to assure that it will be ready for the team at the entry point.

A search rope should always be used by the team because it can:

  1. Enable the RIT to find its exit path for escape, if needed.
  2. Enable the team to go straight for the personal alert safety system (PASS) device.
  3. Lead a second RIT to the rescue site, if additional help or equipment is needed. The second team simply follows the search rope to quickly locate the area. (A lighted search rope greatly increases the visibility of your entrance/exit path.)

When using conventional ropes, tie a directional knot system into the search rope to assist you in determining the way out of the building. The last team member entering the building should deploy the search rope. This will prevent the other RIT members from entangling themselves in the rope as it is deployed. When the team is ready to exit, members simply turn around and the search rope person leads the others from the building, using the search rope as a guide.

Before entering the building, the RIT leader selects the best entry point based on the information that was gathered over the radio from the firefighter in trouble or IC and visual observations by the team. The closest, quickest and safest entry point should be used.

On arrival at the selected entry point, the RIT leader must accomplish the following tasks:

  1. Ensure that all RIT members are accounted for before entry.
  2. Ensure that the team is "tagged in" with accountability personnel.
  3. Ensure that all team members have gathered the appropriate tools, including an emergency SCBA rescue pack.
  4. If a thermal imaging camera is to be used, ensure that it is functioning properly.
  5. Ensure that the team's search rope is secure and ready for deployment.
  6. Confirm with the IC that a protective hoseline will be coming in behind the team.

Pre-search tasks must be accomplished quickly to ensure the team is ready for a rapid and safe entry.

Entry And Search Procedures

We must not confuse searching for a downed firefighter with searching for a civilian victim. In the case of a civilian search, we do not have any means of locating the victim with the exception of gathered information about where he or she may be and the old-fashioned basic search procedure of sweeping the floors with hands and feet.

In the case of a firefighter victim search, technology exists to assist a rapid intervention team. The PASS device has given firefighters an edge in finding a firefighter in distress. We can now use our ears to "hone in" on the location of a trapped comrade. Using a search rope, we can go "straight for the PASS," reducing search time. If a thermal imaging camera is being used, an even quicker search time is achieved.

As you enter the fire building, drop to your knees and maintain silence. Listen for a PASS device's audible signal and determine where it is coming from. This will determine the team's search pattern in the fire building.

If a downed firefighter's PASS device has not been activated, you must listen for calls for help, the striking of a tool on the floor or another object, or radio transmissions. (Practice "honing in" on PASS devices; it is not as easy as you may think. The PASS device's audible signal can bounce off of walls, creating a false impression of its location.)

As you proceed toward the PASS device's audible signal, periodically stop and listen to reaffirm that you are going in the correct direction. The RIT should be communicating periodically to ensure that all team members are informed of the search progress. (If your fire department approves of the "vent as you go" approach to rapid ventilation, the team should be accomplishing this task as long as it does not extend the fire toward a downed firefighter.)

Upon reaching the downed firefighter, immediately perform a size-up of the situation and notify the IC by radio. This will enable the IC to determine any additional needs. It is recommended that another chief be assigned to take command of the firefighter rescue sector. It is difficult for one IC to effectively command the fireground and rescue operations at the same time. Additionally, an operations officer should be sent into the rescue area if there is entrapment to assume command of the interior.

Team leaders should not commit all team members to the rescue room if they are not needed. Many residential rooms are small and crowded with furniture. This could cause you to get into each other's way, hindering the rescue effort. Try to keep the search rope person at the doorway to the room "holding the door" for the team. This will also keep the team and victim from becoming tangled in the rope when exiting the room while using a drag or carry. This person can also be used as a lookout to signal the team in the event that the fire extends toward its location. When the team is ready to exit, the search rope person can verbally guide members to the door.

Approach the downed firefighter cautiously to avoid a panic reaction. If the firefighter's SCBA is almost out of air, he or she may reach out and pull your facepiece off for a breath of air. You must provide the psychological support to maintain calm. Tell the firefighter that you are the rapid intervention team and that you are there to help. Make it clear that you have brought in a fresh air supply and that you will get him or her out. After these tasks are completed, the rapid intervention team can perform its assessment, air supply changeover, extrication and removal (see "Rapid Intervention Teams: Are You Prepared For Removal?" February 1998).

Take It Seriously

If trapped firefighters are not located quickly, it is likely they will lose their lives. The RIT is competing against a clock that won't stop. Trapped or lost firefighters will be running out of air. Rapid intervention teams must be proficient in basic and advanced search techniques to reduce the search time. They must practice these techniques over and over, until they are second nature.

If you are assigned to a rapid intervention team, take the job seriously. I have noted a "Why am I here?" attitude among some firefighters assigned to these teams. If no firefighter rescue occurs while you are on standby, be thankful that the RIT was not used. Be comforted by the fact that you were there, "ready to go," if you had been needed by one of your own.

Performing a firefighter rescue will likely be the hardest assignment - physically and mentally - you will ever get in your fire service career. It is time that we accept the responsibility of rescuing our own using trained RITs. If members of a rapid intervention team do not know how to operate hydraulic rescue tools, airbags or other specialized equipment that may be needed inside a fire building, a trapped firefighter could lose his or her life. The days of throwing a rescue team together after the roof collapses onto firefighters are over.

Unfortunately, I know what it is like to pull a fallen comrade from a burning building. It changed my life forever. Rapid intervention teams are a must. We owe it to ourselves to be good at it. Remember, no one is coming in for us, but us.

James K. Crawford, a FirehouseĀ® contributing editor, has served in career and volunteer organizations during his 20-year fire service career and is a firefighter with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, assigned to Truck Company 33. He is an adjunct and senior field instructor for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy as well as a firefighter with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. Crawford is a veteran of the 1995 Valentine's Day fire that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters. His rapid intervention team training program is available in a four-volume set from "Working Fire" Videotape Training Series. Crawford can be reached via the Internet at pbftr3@aol.com or by telephone at 412-766-0977.