(Appeared in print as "Lessons Learned, Lessons Practiced")
Most organizations that experience a tragic incident spend a great deal of time revamping, and in most cases, overhauling their operations. The Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department has been no different in this regard. Since the Sofa Super Store Fire on June 18, 2007, that claimed nine CFD members, we have examined the way we operate at every type of call and situation. (See timeline of Sofa Super Store Fire.) Rapid-intervention team operations was one of the areas in which we had little to no preparation or training. Shortly after the fire, we embarked upon a training regimen designed to teach every one of our 330 members the skills needed to protect themselves in a mayday situation and to prepare them to act as a rapid company.
At the outset of our RIT training initiative, we contacted the South Carolina Fire Academy, which quickly set up rapid intervention and “rescue-the-rescuer” training for our department. This was no easy task due to two factors: the large number of members we needed to train (300 plus) and the nature of our department’s mindset at the time. The SCFA handpicked its best and most professional instructors to travel to Charleston and deliver these programs.
One would think that the greatest difficulty in presenting these classes would be the logistics or the physical strain; however, with our department having had recent line-of-duty deaths, the negative mental aspects of calling maydays and rescuing simulated downed firefighters quickly became apparent. The department began to lose members to retirement and disability. However, we are very fortunate to have our own firefighter-support team consisting of mental-health counselors and specialists who have training with the situations we encounter and are there to assist us as needed. We realized that the counselors were a great asset and were always on site for the hands-on portions of the classes.
While the entire department was attending the initial training, the standard operating procedure committee was at work developing several policies designed to increase firefighter safety. These policies and procedures are truly as important as the initial training. We quickly developed and implemented our mayday policy, along with an air-management policy. The mayday policy outlines both the member in trouble and the incident commander’s actions in the event of such a situation. In our case, the firefighter(s) in a mayday situation, as well as the RIT team and incident commander, stay on the original channel and all other units move up to the next channel. This policy also defines the terms to be used for giving the critical information needed, as well as all parties’ actions.
The air-management policy states how long a firefighter may operate inside of a structure and defines when an air supply has become so low that the firefighter is in a mayday situation. With these policies in effect, our members now have an SOP for a calling a mayday.
We quickly decided that we would standardize and organize our response to a structure fire in such a manner that we always would have a RIT company on scene and everyone would know which company had the responsibility. Our policy is that the fourth-due engine always will be assigned and operate as the RIT company, and as such will gather and stage in a manner that ensures they will be in position to quickly respond to a mayday situation.
Each member of our department receives training on how to operate as a member of the RIT team. We have specific tasks for each seat assignment, such as operating the PAK-Tracker or operating the RIT-PAK. All of our ladder companies carry RIT equipment, and the fourth-due engine will collect this equipment when they arrive on scene. Then they will stage in an area that the incident commander designates. The fourth-due engine will use the call sign “RIT” for the duration of the incident.
After months of training and evolutions, we slowly realized that even with these new skills and equipment, fully preparing for a mayday situation is arduous and continuous work. However, by developing SOPs and implementing on-going drills and training in this area, we are now better prepared than ever before. Instead of just being reactive, we have added a proactive element to our development. We have prepared our firefighters to handle the mayday, in part by continuously testing our skills in this area.
Most important of all, we’ve created a mindset to keep our firefighters from getting into a mayday situation in the first place.
Mark Davis is a battalion chief with the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department. He also is director of the department’s fire training division. Chris Vanhoy is a battalion chief with the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department.