Evaluating Rapid Intervention Teams

Feb. 1, 2004
Jim McCormack reviews rapid intervention teams and focuses on prevention so that the teams are not needed.
It’s all a matter of perspective. If an entire fireground incident is being managed under the incident command system (ICS), then when things go wrong on the fireground it must mean that the ICS isn’t working, right? If that’s not the case, then the signals being sent out about the fact that rapid intervention is not working – and may not work – must be getting crossed.

There’s been a push recently that indicates rapid intervention isn’t rapid and that it may not work. This is definitely sending the wrong message to firefighters and chiefs.

What’s in a Name?

In a nutshell, the name of the team doesn’t make a bit of difference. Rapid intervention team (RIT), rapid intervention crew (RIC), firefighter assist and search team (FAST) or whatever else you call it in your area simply refers to the trained team of firefighters standing by ready to rescue a firefighter in trouble. The most important issue regarding the team is its competency, not its name. The argument isn’t about “rapid”; it’s about having a trained team ready to go get a firefighter out of trouble.

Many departments are providing “RIT-LS” (that’s rapid intervention team lip service). The reality is that rapid intervention team training begins with prevention. If we can prevent firefighters from getting into trouble, then we won’t have to use a RIT to get them out of trouble. Where does that begin and what does it include?

  • Teaching and continually training on firefighting basics. Beyond a solid foundation in basic self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) skills, this also includes basic engine and truck company operations – stretching hoselines, forcible entry, water supply, ventilation, building construction, size-up, and all those basic skills that allow us to efficiently and safely get the job done on the streets. It also involves basic fireground leadership and company officer skill development, both on the street and in the firehouse.

  • Firefighter survival training that includes training firefighters to call for help and deal with problems that arise. Disorientation training and emergency escape training is a must – in case all else fails. Sure, we need to focus on basic firefighting skills to prevent emergencies, but we must train all firefighters in the skills that can be used to get them out of trouble if it shows up.

  • Firefighter rescue training that includes all those skills associated with rescuing a firefighter or firefighters in trouble on the fireground. Again, teaching prevention is the key, but we can’t ignore the fact that firefighters get in trouble and need to be rescued. Searching for a firefighter – the key to the entire rescue effort – must become a high-priority training topic. Securing a firefighter (air supply, packaging for removal, etc.) and firefighter rescue and removal techniques must be continually practiced to develop speed and efficiency. Teamwork and techniques are essential to successful firefighter rescue and rapid intervention team operations. These concepts must be taught (and learned) during realistic training. The lack of these skills should not be recognized during true fireground emergencies – it’s way too late at that point.

  • Rapid intervention team operations that include a solid foundation of basic firefighting skills, firefighter survival skills and firefighter rescue skills, along with a lot of luck. The critical role of the rapid intervention team officer in managing the team operations must be continually reinforced. Rapid intervention team assignments and the roles and responsibilities of each team member must be spelled out and reinforced during training. Rapid intervention team tools and staging must be identified and addressed well before the incident. Rapid intervention team size-up skills and proactive fireground tasks must be identified and outlined in a solid and functional rapid intervention team SOP. Rapid intervention team deployment must be separated from the overall operation and conducted simultaneously with the other fireground functions.

No matter how much you prepare for (and try to prevent) fireground emergencies, the fact remains that things may not work out. But we all know the difference between a true fireground tragedy and a failure to prepare. Don’t wait for the department to receive its own personalized fatality report to get ready, please!

Repackaging the Basics

Let’s face it, the wave of firefighter survival, rescue and RIT training that’s been going on for the past few years is nothing more than a repackaging of basic firefighting skills. These are the skills that every firefighter should be taught from day one. These are the skills that have become the least important part of basic firefighter training, and continually get pushed further and further back on the training priority list. What’s worse is that they’ve been missing for so long in basic firefighter training that the majority of firefighters on many departments have never had the training. That’s another reason why this training is for all members, not just the new ones.

Is rapid intervention rapid? In its current state, for most departments, the answer is no. The reality is that a firefighter rescue will take time, no matter how prepared you are. Can rapid intervention be rapid? Yes, it can. Proficiency, which comes from frequent and realistic training, increases speed. The most valuable commodity on the fireground is time. Training and preparation can buy time by providing a trained rapid intervention team that is ready to go – and that knows what to do – when a firefighter is in trouble.

The reality is that a trained rapid intervention team will get the job done much quicker than an untrained team. Let’s postpone the argument over the speed of rapid intervention teams until after we’ve taken the time, and put in the effort, to train all firefighters in the basics of firefighting (engine company basics, truck company basics, firefighter survival, firefighter rescue, rapid intervention operations, and – most importantly – preventing fireground emergencies). Only then will we have a realistic snapshot of what rapid intervention teams can do.

  • It’s easy to ask the question and say things aren’t working when you’re not likely to be the one on the receiving end of the service. It’s frightening to ask the question and know things aren’t working when you’re likely to be on the receiving end of the service.

  • It requires hard work, commitment and responsibility to conduct the training that’s needed to develop a successful fireground survival and rapid intervention team program.

  • There are no excuses, none, for not being 100% ready to rescue one of our own on the fireground.

What follows is a department-wide rapid intervention team evaluation that justifies the need for revisiting the basics – under the repackaged training initiative called fireground survival and rapid intervention team operations (or whatever you’d like to call it).

An Evaluation

The Fire Department Training Network assisted the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) last year in conducting a department-wide rapid intervention team evaluation. The training session was designed to evaluate the status of the department’s RIT program while responding to private dwellings (single- and multi-family residence fires make up the bulk of the fire load for the department). A future training session is anticipated to address the department’s RIT capability when responding to commercial building fires, a completely different scenario.

Many fire departments (Indianapolis included) have a blanket policy that provides for – and places – personnel on the fireground to act as the rapid intervention team. This session has provided an honest and realistic “snapshot” of the status of the RIT initiative in Indianapolis. The results are being shared so that they can be used to help departments develop a solid training program for their own members – one that will increase the chances of successfully rescuing one of your own.

The Drill Setup

  • Structure. The structure used for the training session was a 21¼2-story double residence. The use of the residence was made possible by the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, which had recently purchased the structure as part of its expansion. For training purposes, the structure was converted to a single-family residence, allowing access to all areas through the main entrance. The second entry door was secured shut. Other modifications involved making the structure tight to contain smoke and placing furniture to give a realistic feel during the interior fireground operation.

    A large hole was cut between the first floor and the basement to simulate a floor collapse (a firefighter mannequin was placed beneath the hole, PASS sounding, and under debris as one scenario). The hole was secured by placing collapse debris over the opening, partially obscuring it. This debris prevented firefighters from falling into the hole. Smaller holes were cut into the floors to let smoke travel between the floors, reducing visibility.

    A ceiling collapse prop/obstacle was constructed on the second floor to simulate a collapse that had partially buried and pinned a firefighter. The prop was secured to the structure so that it would not fall or cause harm to the operating RIT personnel.

  • Fireground conditions. The entire structure was charged with smoke during the training session. The smoke was generated in burn barrels (through the use of wet straw and pallets) located in strategic locations. The barrels were slightly elevated on concrete blocks to prevent heat conduction to the flooring and partially covered for maximum smoke production. The barrels were monitored by instructors and maintained with 21¼2-gallon water extinguishers. A safety line was in place for complete extinguishment, if needed. Smoke detectors were sounding throughout the structure.

  • Apparatus. An engine was positioned at the structure to simulate an initial attack. A hoseline was stretched into the building, passing by the hole cut in the first floor, and left unmanned at a predesignated location. The line was initially charged and then bled dry to simulate a loss of water. A battalion chief’s vehicle was at the scene with the chief commanding the incident.

  • The RIT company. Companies were instructed to be in staging, with their radios on the training channel, 30 minutes prior to their scheduled times. The staging location was one block north of the residence. Each scenario began with an arriving radio report and size-up from a first-due engine company. Since this was an evaluation of current readiness, no instructions were given except that the company would be performing a RIT response.

    No restrictions were placed on the responding rapid intervention teams. Teams were free to operate in any fashion and perform any fireground functions in order to locate and remove the missing firefighter.

  • IFD’s current RIT protocol. The Indianapolis Fire Department does not dispatch a rapid intervention team on the report of a fire. Once a reported fire has been confirmed (first-due units on-scene), a rapid intervention team is dispatched to the location. Currently, IFD dispatches the closest available engine or truck as the RIT.

Each battalion chief’s vehicle and the safety officer’s vehicle contains a rapid intervention kit and a RIT airpack. The arriving RIT is supposed to report to Command, retrieve the RIT equipment and receive an assignment. The RIT then stages near the command post awaiting deployment.

The Evaluation

  • The participants. The evaluation was designed to evaluate the ability of both the rapid intervention team and command to handle the fireground emergency.

  • The Mayday situation. The evaluation scenario consisted of a distressed firefighter (PASS activated) who was the victim of an interior collapse. The firefighter had a nearly depleted air supply with the SCBA low- air alarm sounding. The actual “firefighter” was a rescue mannequin dressed in turnout gear with an SCBA on and facepiece in position and operating. The firefighter was partially covered in collapse debris, which potentially lead to entanglement due to the subsequent removal efforts by the RIT.

The two potential evolutions were:

2. A firefighter who had become trapped under a collapsed ceiling (second-floor scenario – truck company member missing)

The Scenario

Individual companies were dispatched as the RIT for a working residence fire. As each company neared the scene, a Mayday was transmitted over the training channel. Command acknowledged the Mayday and immediately deployed the RIT to locate, stabilize and remove the firefighter. From this point, the RIT went to work. This was the basis of the evaluation.

The scenario began with a size-up by a first-arriving engine company. The arrival report was:

“Engine 14 is on the scene of a 21¼2-story residence with heavy smoke showing.”
“Engine 14 establishes Kenwood Command.”
“Engine 14 is attack.”
“Ladder 14 is search.”
“This is a working incident.”

Immediately following the arrival report, the RIT was dispatched from staging by the following transmission:

“TSU 18, 1107, Car 1222, Apparatus X (company in staging) as RIT, 3006 Kenwood Avenue for a working residence fire on OPS 6.”

Following the RIT dispatch, the participating battalion chief (IFD has four battalions and each battalion chief was assigned a block of time to manage the Maydays) would assume command and verify assignments. Once the chief had assumed command – and before the RIT had arrived on scene – the following was transmitted:

“Mayday – Mayday – Mayday. I’m trapped and can’t get out. Mayday – Mayday. Help, I need help.”

For realism, the Mayday was transmitted by a firefighter wearing and using an SCBA with the low-air alarm sounding. The Mayday message was taped and played over the radio so that all companies received the same message. If command acknowledged the Mayday, the following additional message was transmitted:

“Help, help. I’m trapped. Mayday – Mayday. I’m trapped.”

Additional radio support/traffic was handled as follows: any additional resources requested by command were acknowledged and dispatched, but no additional resources arrived on scene during the session. A request for a radio unit ID was handled as follows:

“Command, we show TAC 14 gave the Mayday.”

If requested, the radio unit ID designation given to command was TAC 14. IFD radios are assigned by seat position and transmit a unit identifier when keyed (E14-A, E14-B, etc.). The ID of TAC 14 was used to reinforce the need to tie radios to positions and personnel throughout the shift. Some stations have radios on unmanned apparatus that are sometimes used and could lead to confusion during an actual emergency. In other situations radios are inadvertently switched between assigned positions, potentially leading to confusion about who is actually transmitting a message.

Requests for personnel accountability reports (PARs) from operating companies were handled as follows:

  • Basement scenario – “E14 missing one member, L14 has PAR.”
  • Second-floor scenario – “L14 missing one member, E14 has PAR.”
  • Radio requests to E14 or L14 from command – “Radio keyed with no response given.”

This simulated a common communication problem that occurs on the fireground as well as added frustration to command’s part of the evaluation.

Radio Transmissions

Fireground communications are poor at best. Messages go unanswered, are often misunderstood and are sometimes answered by the wrong people. The following radio transmissions were used throughout the incident to provide radio traffic during the RIT deployment. If command called for only emergency traffic, then the transmissions were continued to see if they were acknowledged as emergency messages:

  • “Command from E14, we need another line in here.” (No response was given by E14 if called back by command.)
  • “E14-C from E14-A, E14-C from E14-A.”
  • “Pumper 14, we’re losing pressure. Pumper 14, we’re losing pressure.”
  • “Command from L14. Chief, we need to get the roof opened up.” (No response was given by L14 if called back by command.)
  • “L14-C from L14-A, L14-C from L14-A.”

The above messages were transmitted as emergency messages or conditions to see how command responded.

Safety Considerations

  • Operations channel 6 was designated as the training channel.

  • The operating RIT was monitored at all times by a member of the training staff equipped with a thermal camera.

  • Trainers equipped with 21¼2-gallon water extinguishers monitored the burn barrels during the evolutions.

  • A safety team was standing by and immediately available in the event a problem was encountered.

  • A charged hoseline was staged and available in the event it was needed.

  • A ladder was placed to the second-floor porch to facilitate emergency access/egress. An external staircase located at the rear of the structure was also available for emergency access/egress to the second floor.

Overall Findings

The length of the scenario was based on the air consumption of each individual rapid intervention team; there was no set time limit. Each scenario was terminated when the RIT exited the building with the victim or due to a low-air situation.

The scenario was not designed for success or failure; it was strictly an evaluation of current capabilities. The addition of resources and/or additional RITs to each scenario would have resulted in a higher number of removals, but that was not the objective. The results help provide the insight and justification needed to develop and implement a complete fireground survival program.

The results:

  • There were 126 rapid intervention team evolutions.
  • The missing firefighter was found 44 times (35%).
  • The missing firefighter was removed 11 times (9%).
  • Emergency air supply using the RIT air pack was established eight times.
  • The missing firefighter was rescued with the emergency air supply established four times.

The times:

  • The average time from arrival to entry was three minutes, 50 seconds.
  • The average time to locate the missing firefighter was nine minutes. The shortest time was three minutes, longest time was 19 minutes.
  • The average time to remove the missing firefighter was 14 minutes, 54 seconds. The shortest removal time was nine minutes and longest time was 19 minutes.
  • The average time from cylinder of air was 14 minutes, 13 seconds from time of entry to time of exit.

When a RIT member’s low-air alarm started to sound, the team was given approximately one minute to notify the officer and have at least two members exit, with an appropriate radio transmission. If the appropriate action did not occur, the instructor notified the member (and team) that they must begin exiting the structure. The instructor followed the team out.

The overall evaluation provided numbers that were very real – and realistic. The scenarios were developed to provide a realistic challenge, one likely to be found during an actual emergency. Conducting an evaluation similar to this will help give your department a realistic view of its current RIT capabilities when responding to similar structures. The evaluation will also help to identify both equipment and training needs as it relates to RIT operations.

The evaluation is only the first step. Step two involves providing training based on the results. Use this information to help your firefighters prepare for the most intense fireground operations they’ll ever encounter: rescuing one of their own.

Jim McCormack has been a firefighter for 15 years and is currently a lieutenant with the Indianapolis Fire Department. He is the founder and president of the Fire Department Training Network (www.fdtraining.com), a membership network dedicated to firefighter training, and author of the books Firefighter Survival and Firefighter Rescue & Rapid Intervention Teams.

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