Adding firefighter safety teams to our alarm assignments has changed our thinking over the past few years. Called different names in different areas, they can be known as rapid intervention teams, firefighter assist teams or any number of other designated terms to describe a group of firefighters solely assigned to the task of watching out for and rescuing trapped firefighters.
The concept itself is not new; heavy-rescue companies in many cities, including New York, originally were dedicated to the rescue and recovery of trapped firefighters. While the heavy-rescue company has evolved into a specialty unto itself, recent NFPA standards (NFPA 1500 in particular) and OSHA two-in/two-out regulations have put the implementation of the firefighter rescue team on everyone's list of recent and necessary additions to the fireground. While not exactly used everywhere, more often than not the fire service sees an additional company or companies called to fill this role. RITs and FASTs are here to stay.
Today it's not uncommon to find an additional company specially called over and above the initial structural first alarm assignment to complete the RIT role. If the host department isn't large enough, this frequently has resulted in automatic mutual aid to assist neighboring municipalities with the firefighter rescue team. Departments that had limited contact with each other are now cooperating and providing early backup due to the need for a quickly deployed RIT and two-in/two-out requirements.
In my own department in Lancaster County, Pa., our ladder truck and heavy-rescue companies are assigned almost weekly to structure assignments for the RIT role. Both companies have undergone some extra training and have some additional equipment just to fill their need if ever called into this special service.
New regulations soon will require all newly purchased SCBA to have buddy breathing attachments, and there are a host of newly designed tools available for the department looking to upgrade to the latest and greatest stuff to help locate trapped firefighters.
Recently I corresponded with an officer from the Worcester (Mass.) Fire Department. We wrote to each other about the advancement of firefighter safety and the positive changes made in Worcester since the tragic December 1999 fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters in that city. In his words the Worcester Fire Department “Got IT” after the loss and underwent a tremendous effort to prevent this from ever happening again.
He rightly explained that hundreds of departments across the country were able to purchase thermal imaging cameras as a direct result of the loss in Worcester that night. More importantly, the federal FIRE grants program was an answer to the simple question asked after the Worcester loss, “What can we do to help prevent this from happening again?”
Today, incident commanders routinely look up and see a group of firefighters heading right to the front of the fire building. Just from the equipment and the way they carry it, you know that they're the rapid intervention team. Power saws, hand tools, spare air cylinders, a sledge and portable torch are all loaded onto a metal Stokes stretcher. I bet you've seen them as well and felt a sense of relief. Now if anything goes wrong on the inside, whether it's an unexpected collapse or other peril that brings a firefighter down, there's a group of dedicated personnel right there, equipped and ready to go at the moment of need.
Here's the part where I ruin your day. I hate to spoil your dreams about the perfect fireground and your positive outlook on this well-trained group of folks waiting on the front lawn, but consider this: If command did a better job at situation evaluation, firefighters wouldn't have to worry about having a team on the front lawn ready to rescue them.
Every fire situation is inherently dangerous; bad things happen to good people and good departments. I don't think we ever will eliminate all firefighter deaths and serious injuries. This is a dangerous and serious occupation we have entered. People are going to die and get hurt putting out fires, but how many and how often?
Do we, as incident commanders, let our guard down and think we really can save our own with the addition of a group of firefighters sitting on the front lawn all geared up with no place to go?
I met a wonderful person named Gary Mack at one of the Phoenix Fire Department symposiums a few years ago. Not only was he a consultant with the Phoenix department, but he was a specialist who worked with a number of collegiate and professional baseball teams. His specialty was to help athletes keep away from and get out of hitting slumps or fielding errors. Although he died recently, his lessons on the mental aspects of performance live on.
Mack asked a room of 300 fire officers to close their eyes and recall their finest performance as an IC. Everyone had at least one recollection of perceived excellence. He then told us to keep that good image in our heads and bring it to the next situation we faced. It would help us be prepared to handle the next one as well as we did our previous best incident.
My thought for you as the IC is to realistically assess your role in the RIT that's sitting in front of your next fire building. I know they are “all that” and prepared. I don't doubt their self confidence; being prepared is a great goal.
I want you to concentrate on those firefighters when the apparatus arrives. Think about whether there are decisions that you make as the IC that can do one simple thing: Take a look at every single firefighter and think about whether you can make a choice to prevent that rapid intervention team from ever having to go into rescue mode.
It's great that they're there, but to copy Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent RITs from going to work.”
Glenn D. Usdin is chief of the Lancaster Township (Pa.) Fire Department and the founder of Command School Inc., which is co-sponsored by theand Fire Chief. Usdin also is the founder and former president of Northeast Fire Apparatus.