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Rules of Engagement for Incident Commanders: Always Have a Rapid Intervention Team in Place

Always Have a Rapid Intervention Team in Place at All Working Fires

Objective: To cause the incident commander to have a rapid intervention team in place ready to rescue firefighters at all working fires.

A fireground operation is a risky business. Even with the best safety practices, unexpected events can and do occur that trap firefighters or cause them to become disorientated and lost in the building. For this reason, the incident commander (IC) must always have a rapid-intervention team (RIT) in place at all working fires.

This would include compliance with the OSHA two-in, two-out rule for initial operations, followed by the assignment of a fully staffed RIT as soon as possible. For larger fires, or where unusual risks exist, an expanded RIT operation may be required, utilizing more than one crew and supervised by a chief officer (for example, Rescue Group: two engines, a ladder, an ambulance and a chief officer).

The IC must understand that it will take several RIT members to find and extract a downed firefighter. Research conducted by the Phoenix and Seattle fire departments, in buildings of approximately 5,000 square feet, determined that an average of 11–12 members were needed to complete the rescue operation. Additionally, it took between 19-21 minutes to complete the rescue.

These exercises were conducted in large square foot buildings and one could expect a shorter rescue time and perhaps fewer firefighters in smaller building. However, the research does reflect the realities of time and resources required to rescue a downed firefighter.

It’s important to note the research was conducted in simulated nonfire conditions. The time to complete an actual rescue with active fire in a building that's producing heat with zero visibility and wet and slippery floors littered with debris, etc., can be expected to be longer and the resources required greater.

In short, rapid intervention may not be rapid.

Any mayday should cause the immediate commitment of a RIT. It should also mandate the immediate request for the next level of alarm to support the RIT operation and protect the search area from fire. When a mayday involves more than one firefighter or is complex in nature, additional alarms may be required. The number of alarms requested should be adequate to address the expected rescue and firefighting needs while keeping several companies in staging at all times.

A rapid-intervention operation is also risky business. Research by the Phoenix Fire Department found that 20% of firefighters became disoriented and lost in a building during simulated RIT operations. This could be life threatening to a lost RIT member at an actual fire. Therefore, the IC must ensure there are adequate resources on scene to back up and rescue the RIT if needed.

Experience has shown that where a mayday is declared, fellow firefighters and RIT members may tend to push the envelope in regards to safety because of the nature of the event—rescuing one of their own. The event will likely be highly emotional to those firefighters involved.

To manage this level of risk, the IC should assign a rescue-group supervisor—preferably a chief officer—and a safety officer to oversee the search operation.

There has been some discussion in the fire service about requiring all other fire crews on the fireground to switch frequency following a mayday to allow a clear frequency to maintain communications with the firefighter in trouble. This approach requires time to complete and experience has shown it is nearly impossible to insure ALL firefighters have switched over. Additionally, to confirm switch over, the IC and supervisors would have to conduct a radio contact of all crews one by one. This would create additional radio traffic during a RIT operation.

Experience has also shown that where a firefighter's air is low or out, radio communication with the firefighter ceases as he lapses into unconsciousness, and this could occur before the confirmation process of switching frequency is complete.

The solution for this situation is to purchase portable radios with an emergency-activation button. Once the button is activated for a mayday, these radios automatically switch to a predetermined frequency direct to the dispatch center and the incident commander. The radio also automatically identifies the user. The IC and RIT would now have clear communications with the firefighter in trouble.

Bottom line: Never conduct high-risk interior firefighting operations without a rapid intervention team in place.

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