Can rapid intervention teams actually save firefighters? Two studies report that departments underestimate the resources needed for teams to do so.
One of the saddest days of my fire service career was March 14, 2001, when I was an assistant chief with the Phoenix Fire Department. A dozen maydays had been broadcast, and two rapid intervention teams had entered a burning supermarket to search for firefighters. Two additional alarms had been sounded, and additional crews were being organized into search teams. Several firefighters had been rescued or escorted out of the building; one fire captain was brought out unconscious and barely breathing. But one firefighter remained unaccounted for.
Interior conditions had suddenly worsened from relatively modest smoke conditions to zero visibility as crews were fighting a fire in the rear stockroom. After the rescue of others, the search area was narrowed to the 2,000-square-foot stockroom. Crews worked courageously for 53 minutes to search, locate and remove Firefighter Bret Tarver after he declared a mayday, but they weren't able to make it in time.
Following the tragedy, the Phoenix Fire Department conducted one of the largest open investigations ever conducted by a fire department, followed by a recovery plan to implement changes in training, procedures, technology and equipment. Additionally, a research effort was initiated to better understand the capabilities of rapid intervention teams. This research project involved search-and-rescue exercises in three separate large-square-footage buildings (two buildings of 5,000 square feet, and one of 7,500 square feet). In each exercise, two firefighters were lost in the building but less than 100 feet from an exit.
Four months after the tragedy, I became the fire chief of the Seattle Fire Department. Shortly after the Phoenix research project began, Seattle initiated a similar study of rapid intervention effectiveness. Seattle's exercises involved search and rescue of a first floor and basement of a 5,000-square-foot building. The scenario also had two firefighters lost in the building.
Between the two departments, more than a 100 search-and-rescue exercises were conducted, and data were carefully collected. Though separate research efforts, these studies came to nearly identical conclusions.
The research found that the fire service has grossly underestimated both the number of rescuers and the time required for rapid intervention teams to enter the building, and find and move each firefighter to safety. Four members of a team didn't do it; neither did six, eight or 10. The average number of firefighters required in the Seattle study to complete a rescue was 11; Phoenix determined an average of 12.
These averages included the use of a primary search team followed by an extraction team. Breathing air from SCBAs was consumed during the search, so once a lost firefighter was located, additional firefighters were needed to replace the initial crew that was running low on air. The physical efforts of moving the firefighter to an exit required additional firefighters. The extraction process was found to involve intense manual labor that rapidly exhausted rescuers and quickly depleted breathing air. In some exercises, a relay system of rotating fresh crews into the rescue effort was necessary.
Finding a lost firefighter may occur in a relatively short period of time, but removing a firefighter from the building is harder and takes longer. Phoenix was able to locate the first downed firefighter an average of 7 minutes, 27 seconds after a mayday was declared. In Seattle the average time was 6 minutes, 30 seconds. During each of the exercises, the rescue effort continued into the extraction stage, and the time became longer, as each of the downed firefighters was moved by whatever manner possible to an exit.
And how long did it take to enter, locate and retrieve both the downed firefighters? Seattle's research indicated an 18 minute average, and Phoenix came in with 21 minutes. (Phoenix used a larger building). Think about it. We barely get 20 minutes of work time out of the typical 30-minute SCBA bottle during routine firefighting.
The physical labor to move a downed firefighter was considerable and resulted in high consumption rates of breathing air. In the Phoenix research, it was determined that SCBA working time on a 3,000psi bottle for rescue crews was between 16.5 and 18.5 minutes. Seattle's data was similar, with an average air consumption rate of 130psi per minute. In other words, some rescuers will likely to be out of air before a rescue can be completed.
It's also possible for rescuers to become victims themselves. The Phoenix research indicated that one in five rescuers got into trouble, mostly low on air, out of air, or lost in the building.
There are a number of other lessons that can be interpreted from this research.
Clearly, the first lesson is to ensure the firefighter does not get in trouble in the first place. Doing so keeps firefighters safe and eliminates a high-risk rescue operation. This, of course, requires proper equipment, training, procedures, and fireground command and accountability operations. But it also requires the personal commitment of firefighters to comply with procedures and directions, be constantly aware of their surroundings and the risk, and keep themselves and others safe. Additionally, the fire department management team must directly — and aggressively — correct violations of safety practices, especially those “hot-dog” firefighters who think they are invincible, as well as any freelancing on the fireground by members.
Procedures and fireground operations must require buddy teams for all interior operations. Crews go in together, stay together and must come out together. When one member of the team runs low on air, the entire team exits the building. No single member should be allowed to go in or out alone, no exceptions.
Firefighters must continuously check their SCBA pressure and air supply. In the Phoenix tragedy, firefighters were caught beyond the turn-around point of SCBA air supply after conditions rapidly changed. Firefighters must constantly be aware of their SCBA pressure to ensure they have adequate air to safely exit the building. (It's also been observed that firefighters around the country are generally weak in regularly checking their air pressures).
A firefighter must never run out of air. Any firefighter who runs out of air in a fire has a high probability of dying. The toxicity of a smoke atmosphere in modern-day fires is far more lethal than it's ever been. The 6- to 7-minute time frame to initially find a firefighter learned from this research could easily be a lethal period before rescuers can trans-fill his or her SCBA. Think about it. In that period of time the firefighter could take nearly 100 breaths of a highly toxic atmosphere.
Firefighters must stay on the hoseline or a rope safety line. Clearly, once a firefighter gets off the hoseline, he or she has lost the “lifeline” and is at great risk.
If the firefighter gets lost in a large building, there is a very narrow window of survivability. Remember, the research indicates that it takes an average of 18 to 21 minutes to find and remove a downed firefighter in a large building. Firefighters must be authorized to declare a mayday as soon as they think they are in trouble. Furthermore, they must be trained in self-survival techniques that will extend survivability and aid rescuers in locating them.
It will take a dozen firefighters on the scene, organized into teams, to rapidly complete a firefighter rescue. All fire departments should have procedures in place to ensure this staffing level is on scene and available during working incidents. If more than one firefighter is lost in the building, additional resources must be immediately available. Rapid intervention teams must be closely supervised and well-organized to be effective and safe.
Rapid intervention search and rescue is also high risk. As noted in the Phoenix research, 20% rescuers got themselves in trouble — and became potential victims. If that happens, they are at high risk of death at that stage of the incident. Who will rescue the rescuers?
Further compounding the risk, experience has shown that firefighter maydays almost always happen as the incident approaches, or is already, a marginal situation. Most of these episodes appear to occur between the 20-minute and 40-minute period of fireground operations. Fire conditions are rarely improving during this period. Flashover and structural collapse are high probabilities. Such conditions require a very cautious analysis, and a tough risk-benefit decision, by the incident commander. When does the incident commander say “no” to rapid intervention because of risk?
Following this research, both the Phoenix and Seattle fire departments added fire companies to the initial dispatch to activate expanded rapid intervention teams early in the incident. Furthermore, once a working fire is declared, additional fire companies now are dispatched automatically in both cities. Once on scene, these dedicated fire companies are organized in a multi-company “Rescue Sector” in Phoenix or a “Rapid Intervention Group” in Seattle. In both cities, a minimum of two engines and a ladder company is dedicated to rapid intervention, and this resource is supervised by a chief officer. In addition, each city includes a firefighter-staffed ambulance and paramedics as part of the team resources.
The search-and-rescue time frames are average times. Some rescues can be substantially longer than the 18- to 21-minute window. Waiting longer than 21 minutes to be rescued is almost certainly fatal. Will fire conditions even allow a rescue effort to continue for this period of time?
The research was conducted in test conditions. There was no fire heat, or dense smoke impeding the search efforts. Nor were there the typical debris, clutter, inches of slippery water or other “junk” that firefighters face in real-life rescue situations. If a real mayday occurs, it's wise to assume that rapid intervention and a successful rescue will take longer. In Phoenix, it took two initial rapid intervention teams and additional rescue crews 53 minutes to retrieve Tarver in a search area of about 2,000 square feet. And if additional firefighters become lost in a building, more rescuers will be needed and it will take longer to complete a rescue, if fire conditions allow it.
So, it's back to the first lesson: We must not allow firefighters to get in trouble in the first place. Rapid intervention teams are necessary and must be implemented at all working incidents. They do save lives, but they can't be construed as a perfect parachute. There are no guarantees for rapid rescue.
The fire service has suffered tough lessons over the years from many fatal incidents. The research data obtained from the Phoenix and Seattle exercises is an additional eye-opener regarding risk in the fire service business. It further identified false assumptions of our capabilities to rescue one of our own. The lessons are there. It's time for us to take this research data and aggressively move forward to make the fireground safer.
Gary Morris is the fire chief for the Rural-Metro Fire Department, Maricopa and Pinal County Operations, near Phoenix. He previously was the fire chief for the Seattle Fire Department, and he retired as an assistant chief with the Phoenix Fire Department after a 30-year career. Morris is the immediate past chair of theSafety Committee. He holds a master's degree in organizational management from the University of Phoenix.
Personal Escape Systems
It was next to impossible to find a commercially made firefighter personal escape system 10 years ago. Firefighters who carried one had to put together individual components that were often bulky and not designed for the rigors of firefighting.
Today, nearly every rope-rescue and SCBA manufacturer offers some type of escape system. Technological advancements have made ropes and the associated hardware smaller, lighter and stronger than ever.
In today's world of tight and ever-decreasing budgets, the cost of an escape system might be the determining factor on whether to purchase one. This decision must be an informed one and requires an understanding of the options available.
For simplicity, these systems can be grouped into two main categories: independent and SCBA-integrated. Each one has advantages and disadvantages. Both require some type of rope or webbing, an approved harness or escape belt, and hardware to secure to an anchor and attach oneself to the system. An independent system requires a separate Class I or II seat harness or an escape belt. An integrated system uses a converted SCBA waist strap as the harness or belt, making it all-inclusive. This may reduce weight and bulk, but it could prove to be a disadvantage. Mainly, if firefighters had to exit a smaller window that required a reduced profile, they might be forced to doff their SCBA, which would make the integrated system useless. An independent system allows for more versatility and options for deployment.
Additionally, independent systems allow for a wide variety of choices when it comes to harnesses and belts, rope and hardware. This affords the opportunity to personalize a system based on a department's or firefighter's anticipated needs. Besides having the ability to customize, the purchase of individual components in large quantity can help to reduce overall costs. To further savings, independent systems can be located in riding positions on apparatus similar to SCBA-integrated systems.
The main disadvantage is proper maintenance. Firefighters are much more likely to keep their own system in good operational condition than one that is used by firefighters on every shift. Regardless of what type of system is chosen, all components must meet the requirements outlined in NFPA 1983, Fire Service Life Safety Rope and Equipment. The 2006 revision is slated for release this fall.
Once a decision is made on the type and number of escape systems to purchase, the department must follow through with a training program. Step one is to stress prevention and teach firefighters how to avoid getting into situations that require the use of an escape system in the first place. The hands-on portion of the training must include the options and locations for deployment when the unavoidable occurs. It should also teach firefighters a variety of anchoring and bailout techniques, as no one technique will work in every situation or location. During the hands-on phase of training, it is essential that instructors use fall arrest protection to safeguard students who may lose control as they practice their escape and descent.
Firefighters should be instructed how to deploy a personal escape system not only out a window but off a flat or pitched roof as well. Advanced training includes the use of an escape system to rescue a civilian or fellow firefighter in these same locations. Through practice, a firefighter can completely clear out a double-hung window, deploy his or her system and exit a room in 30 seconds while working in reduced visibility and using an independent System. Techniques for rescuing a civilian or fellow firefighter out a window or off a roof can be executed in less than 60 seconds. Keep in mind that these times can increase when you add in the factors of heat, stress and fatigue that will likely be present in a real emergency. Experience is essential for a safe and effective operation, remembering that in demanding situations firefighters tend to fall back on their training.
The key to a rapid deployment is having a preassembled system, knowing a variety of anchoring techniques and training repetitively. The safety, speed and efficiency of your escape will hinge on the type and location of the anchor you select. An anchoring technique that we developed dramatically reduces the time it takes for a firefighter to escape a hostile environment. This technique requires firefighters to carry a tool, ideally a flat- or pick-head axe or Halligan bar. You must be in a room where the interior sheathing adjacent to the window is lath and plaster or drywall.
When deploying the system, the firefighter pulls out the anchor end and slides a quick loop over the handle of a tool. The handle of the axe or fork end of the Halligan bar is then inserted through the sheathing of the wall approximately six inches to one side of the window frame and 12 to 18 inches above the bottom sill. When inserting an axe handle, face the blade of the tool away from the window opening. After breaching the wall, the tool is pushed up parallel to the wall, fracturing the sheathing above the breach. The firefighter slides the tool down inside the wall as deep as possible, attaches the descent control device to his or her escape belt or harness, and rappels out the window.
There are distinct advantages to this anchoring technique. First of all it is the quickest and easiest to perform, taking only seconds to establish. In addition, the anchor is installed right at the point of exit and low on the threshold of the window opening. This maximizes the length of the rappel while minimizing the amount of rope exposed to any heat or fire that may enter or involve the room.
To evaluate the strength of this anchoring technique we performed numerous tests using various tools in both drywall and lath-and-plaster walls. In all tests the anchor easily held the weight of four firefighters without any movement of the tool. This is because the tool is wedged between the interior and exterior sheathing of the wall, locking it in place. During one training session conducted at a vacant building, a single anchor withstood over 100 rappels without once being compromised. The strength of this technique allows the option for more than one firefighter to use the same tool. Due to the force applied, the use of wood handle tools should be avoided. Instead replace the wood with fiberglass or composite handles.
Depending on building construction, the handle of the tool may breach the exterior sheathing of the wall; this requires retracting the tool to allow the handle to slide down inside the wall. On plaster walls, the lath must run at least two stud spaces (32 inches) in order for the wall to hold the tool in place. Otherwise the lath may simply pop off the studs when the tool is pulled down into the wall space. Drywall on the other hand has no space limitations.
If construction features prevent this anchoring technique, firefighters can resort to more-traditional methods, such as breaching a wall and wrapping a stud near the escape window or securing to a substantial object in the room. As a last resort, firefighters could breach the floor or place a tool in the corner of the window opening, preferably using a Halligan bar.
A personal escape system can prove to be an invaluable tool for self rescue, but with additional training firefighters can learn to use an escape system for the rescue of a fellow firefighter or even a civilian. A firefighter's chances of survival increase proportionately with the equipment and options he or she has immediately available. The decision to provide our personnel with survival equipment becomes easier to justify when it has more than just one application.
The fire service has a long history of tragedy planning. It often takes a firefighter to be seriously injured or even killed for us to reevaluate our policies, procedures or equipment. If we believe the safety of our personnel comes first, this after-the-fact mentality needs to change. If firefighters are expected to push the envelope to save lives, we need to give them the tools and training to do their job safely — and money should never get in the way of that.
— Lt. Dale Pekel Wauwatosa (Wis.) Fire Department