Rapid Intervention: If You're Not Trained, You're Not a Team

July 1, 2005
John J. Salka discusses the need to train or otherwise practice rapid intervention team drills as vital firefighter safety and survival tactics.

Rapid intervention operations are nothing new. They have been around for years and many fire departments use them on a regular basis. Rapid intervention team (RIT) drills and training programs are part of almost every fire service conference and seminar, and many departments train with and master these skills for use in rescuing trapped or distressed firefighters.

But many fire departments do not train or otherwise practice these vital firefighter safety and survival tactics and that is a problem. The specific RIT tactics that firefighters need to be trained and experienced in are extremely different from the more routine fire tactics use for fighting building fires. Some of the best and most experienced firefighters can have difficulty implementing RIT tactics if they have not been trained and exposed to these operations.

What tactics does a firefighter need to know to be an effective and efficient member of a fire department's rapid intervention team? There are probably dozens of unique, specific and useful individual tactics that rapid intervention teams carry out, and after several years of training and experience most may be learned, but there is a smaller core group of RIT tactics that any and every firefighter working on a team must know. These are the basic RIT tactics that every fire department is obligated to train its members on if it is embracing and practicing RIT operations for itself or neighboring departments.

Basic RIT Tactics

There are several urgent and hazardous situations that firefighters can find themselves in during structural fire operations. These are the situations that the rapid intervention team was designed to handle. Firefighters fall through floors, get disoriented, have buildings collapse on them, run out of air and get trapped by extending fire. Each of these situations can be handled with several different tactics depending on the firefighter's location, the building type and the fire conditions.

The tactics described below are the basic and minimum standard for a RIT firefighter:

Determine who needs assistance. This is most often the job of the RIT officer, but each and every RIT firefighter needs to be able to collect this information from various sources on the scene. Obviously, the incident commander may hand this information to the RIT officer, but there are several other methods of determining this information. One is to have a RIT firefighter monitor each radio channel being used at the scene. Any firefighter transmitting a Mayday or other distress signal can be heard by this member and the officer can be informed.

Listening to fireground radio transmissions also may reveal that a firefighter is getting into trouble, but may not be calling for help yet. Firefighters who sound like they may be lost or disoriented can be identified and assisted. Some portable radios have the capability of displaying the identity of the transmitting member. If a Mayday or distress call is made, a RIT firefighter monitoring the radio can see the identity of the firefighter in distress.

Select and assemble RIT equipment. There is an entire apparatus full of equipment that can be used to perform numerous functions and tactics at fire operations, but only a select few pieces of equipment are best suited for RIT operations. Knowing what equipment is needed, where it is on the apparatus, and how to transport it and assemble it near the command post is vital to the rapid readiness of the RIT. Every firefighter who is part of a RIT must possess this knowledge and ability.

Some of the basic RIT tools are a thermal imaging camera, search rope, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), power saw and rescue sling/harness. These tools are in addition to the standard hand tools carried by the RIT firefighters, such as halligans, axes and pike poles. All of these tools are not immediately brought into the building or hazard area, but assembled near the command post for RIT deployment.

Team division and deployment. No matter how many firefighters are on your department's RIT, they must be utilized and deployed based on the specific situation at hand. Some departments assign a company that is staffed by four people, an officer and three firefighters. Others use companies with six people, an officer and five firefighters, and some use several units with two or more officers and eight to 10 firefighters.

Whatever the number of people, that is what you must be able to work with. Obviously, having a larger team makes it easier to operate, so let's look at a small team of four people. After arriving and reporting to command, the officer can split the team into two sub-teams of two firefighters. The officer and one firefighter become the advance team and, when activated, enter the fire building and penetrate to the area where the firefighter needing assistance is known or thought to be operating.

If a search rope can be deployed by the team, it should be done. This rope will not only provide the team with a route out of the fire building, but becomes a rapid entry route for additional firefighters to get quickly to the area of RIT operations. They take with them hand tools and a SCBA. Research has shown that most firefighters in real distress inside burning buildings end up running out of air. Bring the SCBA with the first entry team for this reason.

The second sub-team remains at the entrance to the building with the balance of the RIT equipment, ready to lend assistance, transport additional equipment into the first team or relieve the first entry team. After the first team locates and assesses the situation, it can call the backup team with any needs it has. The RIT officer, once deployed, should ask the incident commander to designate additional RIT members, teams or units as required.

First-floor drags. Many firefighters rescued by rapid intervention teams are lost, out of air or unconscious. Once the downed firefighter is located, the RIT firefighters must attach a rope, sling or other device and drag the victim out of the hazard area. Converting the SCBA waist strap to a rescue harness by fastening it between the firefighter's legs, a rope or sling must be attached and deployed so the removal can begin. Obviously, if a RIT advance team of two firefighters locates an unconscious firefighter, it must call for assistance to complete the drag.

Several techniques can be used to drag the firefighter, including using the rescue rope around the RIT firefighters' shoulders as they make their way out of the building. Another method is to attach a pre-rigged device that provides a mechanical advantage so the drag can be completed with less effort. Firefighters without a rope or sling can drag a firefighter by one grasping and pulling on the SCBA shoulder strap while the second RIT member positions at the leg area to push the unconscious firefighter.

Stairway transport. If an unconscious firefighter must be transported up or down a stairway, there are a few tactics that work well. One is similar to the floor drag, but instead of a horizontal drag, the firefighter is pulled up the stairway. Again, a rescue rope is attached to the SCBA frame and firefighters at the top of the stairs pull while another firefighter ascends with the unconscious firefighter, lifting that person up at each step as the rope is pulled from above.

Mechanical-advantage equipment is also effective for upward stairway rescues. The mechanical advantage allows a single firefighter to pull a firefighter up a stairway with a fraction of the effort that would be required for a straight pull. Again, with no rope, two firefighters can team up and pull an unconscious firefighter up the stairs by lifting the person, one at the shoulder strap of the SCBA and the other at the legs, one step at a time.

Hole hoist. There are several ways to pull a firefighter up through a hole in the floor. One way is to drop a rescue rope to a conscious firefighter. The center of the rope is dropped so when it is grasped, the two ends will be pulled from above to get the firefighter out. Another method for a conscious firefighter is to push down a charged hoseline to the member below. Both ends are held at the top of the hole and the firefighter below grasps the hose loop that is lowered. While holding the hose, the firefighters above pull the hose until the firefighter is at the edge of the hole where he or she is grabbed and pulled up.

If the firefighter down the hole is unconscious, a RIT firefighter can descend to that location and attach a rescue rope to the firefighter's SCBA harness and guide the person up as they are pulled by teams above.

Window hoist. An unconscious firefighter who has been moved to a window on an upper floor can be hoisted up out of the window and down to the ground rapidly using a ladder and a rope. A ladder is positioned against the building, above the window. A rescue rope is brought up and laid over a rung above the top of the window. The rope is then brought into the window and attached to the firefighter's SCBA frame. Firefighters at the bottom of the ladder are instructed to pull the rope and the firefighter is lifted from the floor inside the window, onto the window sill and out of the window. Once outside, the rope is slowly released and the firefighter is lowered to the ground.

Stokes transport. There are many other situations and positions that a firefighter can end up in that may make removal difficult. Often, simple packaging into a stokes basket will allow the firefighter to be hoisted, lowered, dragged or pulled over various terrains and obstacles. Basic procedures using seatbelt-type webbing or rope as the securing material need to be known. A firefighter cannot be hoisted or lowered in a stokes if he or she is not safely and properly secured into the basket.

Training, Training, Training

These few important tactics and tasks need to be practiced and known by any firefighter assigned RIT duties. Relying on firefighters to read articles in trade journals and attend hands-on training at conferences as your department's RIT training is insufficient. These activities can enhance and improve your firefighters' RIT abilities, but the basic tactical and task-level training must be initiated, reviewed and updated as an official department function.

Rapid intervention duties are technical and specific. They are often conducted during extremely hazardous structural fire operations and their success is measured in lives lost or saved. This is not the type of tactical operation that we can deploy any group of firefighters to perform. Although RIT operations are quite infrequent compared to the number of times that rapid intervention teams are assembled at fire scenes, when required, they must be performed properly, rapidly and professionally.

So, how do you make sure your department's RIT operations are performed as required?

At the very least, RIT training should include monthly training sessions and semi-annual retraining and certification. The semi-annual training should be a full re-run of the entire RIT program, including officer and firefighter responsibilities and every tactic the department wants firefighters to know. Every member on the team must attend the annual refresher.

The monthly training sessions are simply tactical evolutions involving RIT scenarios and solutions. Who is going to ride out of the firehouse as a RIT firefighter should not be decided just before the rig rolls. Qualified firefighters should be identified as part of the department's rapid intervention team! Team members respond to RIT calls and are selected to respond with the apparatus over members who do not have RIT training. Arm bands or helmet stickers identify trained firefighters and provide for a sense of pride in being trained and a member of the team.


Although not our most frequently performed duty, RIT operations are vital to the survival of firefighters. You wouldn't send a team of inexperienced firefighters to a mutual aid fire in a neighboring community to perform roof ventilation, so treat RIT operations the same way. Add RIT training to your departments training program and see how much interest it will generate in the firehouse.

One of the most often heard comments on drill night is, "We always drill on the same things." Start a RIT training program and a rapid intervention team. Remember, if your firefighters are not trained, they are not a team!

John J. Salka Jr., a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 26-year veteran battalion chief with FDNY, the commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. Salka has instructed at several FDNY training programs, including the department's Probationary Firefighters School, Captains Management Program and Battalion Chiefs Command Course. He conducts training programs at national and local conferences and has been recognized for his firefighter survival course "Get Out Alive." Salka co-authored the FDNY Engine Company Operations manual and wrote the book Forged in Fire: Leadership Lessons of the FDNY. He also operates Fire Command Training, a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.

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