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Forming your fire department's rapid intervention team
By Pat Pauly
A large warehouse fire has taken several hours and the efforts of several small fire departments to finally extinguish.  The firefighters from some 15 different stations are tired, sweaty, and ready for a well-deserved night’s sleep.  Several thousand feet of large diameter hose still needs to be reloaded and numerous pieces of fire apparatus are stripped of other items including master stream devices, nozzles, and 2 ½” hose.  As various fire departments are released from the scene, your fire chief comments on the excellent cooperation between all the volunteer departments that have managed to stop another large fire in the building of origin.  Although each and every fire company brags they are the “best” at this business, and every member thinks his neighboring department has some really old-fashioned ideas, they all seem to work together without major hassle when the “big one” occurs.  While reloading the 5” hose you ask your guys “Why can’t we get anyone to start a Rapid Intervention Team (RIT)? ” 
Much like every other idea and concept that the fire service in North America has adopted, RIT has to start somewhere with someone.  Who was the first department in your area to have preconnected attack lines?  The answer to that question probably dates back several decades.  Some fire departments preconnected lines in the 1950’s, some the 1960’s, and most by the end of the 1970’s.  What year did the first station in the county or district get large diameter hose (larger than 3”)?  The revolution for 4” and 5” hose began in the 1970’s and continued for over 20 years.  In fact today there are still fire departments that use only 3” hose for supply lines.  How about haz-mat training, and what about wearing protective clothing including bunker pants to all fires?  Some group, some time, was the trendsetter.  Having a FAST, RIT or GO team is going to require the same action.  A fire crew is going to finally decide they are tired of reading about firefighters being hurt, lost, or trapped and not having someone ready to help them.  Worse yet, some firefighter gets hurt, lost, or trapped and then reality slaps everyone right smack in the kisser!

In this article I will attempt to share some ideas that I am familiar with from small departments that have formed firefighter rescue teams.  These firefighters had to struggle along the way with this “crazy idea” just like so many others we have lived through.  Unfortunately the fire service is not always the easiest bunch of folks to convince to change.  Some ideas are good ones and maybe some are not, but “we the fire service” many times want proof positive that this way will be much better, faster and safer.  Those are great reasons for resisting change but sometimes getting positive proof is a bit more difficult than we might want it to be.  How can we prove that something is better, or faster, or safer?  What length of time will it take to show an idea does have merit?  What if a firefighter gets lost at the next structure fire and tells everyone by calling a “MAYDAY”?   We probably have good reason to consider what accountability will do for us.  Seems a wee bit exaggerated doesn’t it?  Or does it sound a tad familiar?

Progressive people in fire departments all over the United States bring change.  RIT is no different than other “new” or “different” ideas.  Some person or group of people must decide it is time to research this.  No doubt your fire department could start a fire fighter rescue team without too much effort.  After all there are plenty of trained fire fighters that know how to rescue somebody.  What could possibly be different about rescuing fire fighters?  Actually there are many similarities.  There are also many differences.  There are even some advantages to rescuing fire fighters.  But there are also many different techniques and some disadvantages.  
 
Advantages for searching for a lost or trapped firefighter include the likely sounding of a PASS device.  SCBA straps can be used as a convenient way to grab the firefighter victim to drag him/her to safety.  Disadvantages include the additional weight of turnout gear and SCBA, something a civilian victim would not normally have.  Practicing firefighter rescue in dark atmospheres filled with artificial smoke make for the most real life training scenarios. Lighting becomes a problem, as does ventilation. Firefighters must wear full protective clothing including SCBA while training for firefighter rescue tasks.   This includes “going on air” from your SCBA.  This not only makes the session more realistic but also quickly demonstrates how quickly “rescuers” will become exhausted and frustrated if they are unable to remove “victims” immediately.

Where does a person or fire department begin?  Although there was not a great deal of information available to us six or seven years ago, lots of good sources exist today.  Many fire departments have started their own RIT.  Large career departments often can provide this service because they have the resources.  FDNY for example has been providing a Firefighter Assist and Search Team (FAST) since the 1980’s.  Their “All Borough Circular  5-88” and “SOP # AUC 320” detail the response and procedures for this important service.  The Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire responds a GO Team to provide fire fighter rescue. Small fire departments too have taken the steps to provide this valuable service.  The following information details those steps from several volunteer fire departments in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, my home state. 

Some of the first volunteer departments that were utilizing fire fighter rescue teams that I became familiar with were from the southeastern part of Pennsylvania (PA).   Two of those departments were the Bryn Athyn Fire Company in Montgomery County and the Southampton Fire Company in Bucks County.  They started their teams with information gathered from New Jersey and New York. Greg Jakubowski and Tom Sullivan presented information from those two states at the Montgomery County (PA) Fire Academy in the summer of 1996. That information was the basis for the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy’s (PSFA) 2-hour “Rapid Intervention Teams” class that was introduced in 1997. I met Jim Crawford from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire while teaching the first offering of that class.  He was teaching rapid intervention techniques to fire departments all over the western part of PA.  From his classes many fire departments started teams.  He then offered his 2-day program to the PSFA in 1998 and they presented it for the next four years all around PA.  Many counties in PA started their first fire fighter rescue team after Jim or the PSFA presented a 2-day class on RIT techniques.  Regional rit teams, comprised of members from many different volunteer fire stations exist in several locations in Western PA.

Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania is one of the counties that have seen RIT Teams formed on a regional or multi-station basis.  In Mahanoy City, Pottsville, and Schuylkill Haven rapid intervention teams have become part of the normal fire department response to structure fires.  These communities are located in the “hard coal” region of Pennsylvania. Their RIT Teams continue to train on a regular basis even after they attended both the 2-day “basic” and 2-day “advanced” RIT classes from the PSFA.  Two stations in Mahanoy City and several stations in the Pottsville-Schuylkill Haven area have participated in this training and respond to fires in their areas.  The trendsetters stepped to the plate to make this happen.  
 
The Mahanoy City Fire Department RIT Team assisted one of their members from a structure fire during 2002.  He had injured his leg when he got caught between boards and the hose line.  Although not seriously injured, the RIT Team helped him exit the building when he called for them.  Their team is currently responding to 6 different municipalities to provide RIT team service.  They also have opened their membership up to all fire stations in the Mahanoy City Fire Department.  A working fire in Mahanoy City results in this team providing a RIT stand-by team initially.  Another RIT team takes over this responsibility when they arrive from another near by municipality.
The Fire Bureau of the City of Pottsville recognized the need for a firefighter rescue team and hosted a FAST seminar in 1997.  Two officers from FDNY conducted it.  This eight station volunteer department then wrote SOG #118.00 to establish and detail their FAST Company.  It states that at least one company will serve as the FAST Company on any working fire in Pottsville with at least four highly trained firefighters.  The FAST Company Officer is specifically responsible to control freelancing and discipline with the Team, and guidelines are provided to determine when the IC should deploy the FAST Company.  Recognizing that daylight alarms typically result in less manpower the Pottsville Fire Bureau and Schuylkill Haven Fire Department agreed to provide FAST support for one another when requested.  The Schuylkill Haven Fire Department selected their FAST Team members from each of their three stations. 

My home county of Mifflin, located in central PA started a RIT team in 2001.  Having the good fortune of three different stations from three different municipalities has made the formation and training of the team a challenging but rewarding venture. Mifflin County Station #2 East Derry from Derry Township, Station #13 Brooklyn Hose Co. from Lewistown Borough, and Station #17 West Granville from Granville Township all worked hard to make this a reality.  Several of the active fire fighters from two of these stations were involved with some initial RIT training offered in 2000.  When all three stations began discussing the formation of a team, things began to happen.  Officers met and discussed some ideas.  A set of SOPs were written and more training followed.  The concept was introduced to the county fire chiefs prior to, and again after the team was actually ready to respond.  Training continues to occur at the PSFA in Lewistown, PA located in Mifflin County.  Like so many other things that have occurred previously, a group of change makers decided it was time.  Not without criticism or questions, the RIT32 team stands ready for response in an around Mifflin County.

The RIT32 team responds at least one piece of apparatus from each of the three stations when dispatched for a RIT call.  During the first year of existence each station was using a “utility type” vehicle for response.  More recently all three stations have found the need to respond an engine from their respective stations because the smaller vehicles were either not capable of carrying enough persons or enough equipment. Many times during evening or nighttime responses each station may have four to eight persons responding to their station.  The three stations are located in bordering municipalities so they are often on each other’s first or second alarm assignments for structure fires.  This means that a fire in any of the three municipalities will result in one or two of the stations responding to fight fire leaving only one or two of the remaining stations for RIT duty.  This issue was studied long and hard before the team began response.  It was decided that one station’s personnel were better than having no one available to provide the service.  
 
 
The RIT32 Team trains regularly on new techniques and reviews previously learned skills also.  They use acquired structures when available for realistic training.  A recent highway construction project yielded several wood frame residences for the team to work in.  Members not able to wear SCBA can still serve a valuable service to the RIT32 Team.   They may drive apparatus, serve as the Accountability Officer, help move equipment to and from the RIT staging tarp, and assist with other functions as needed.  Most of these firefighters attend training with the members that don SCBA and stand by as the actual RIT team during calls.  The RIT32 Team Standard Operating Guidelines (SOG) calls for their first arriving piece of apparatus to begin RIT operations as soon as they arrive.  The staging tarp should be placed near the Command Post as permitted by the Incident Commander (IC).  . 

Any chief or line officer with that first piece of apparatus becomes the RIT32 Team Leader for this incident.  He/she meets the IC face to face and discusses the fire while the other RIT32 members assemble the equipment and four of them dress in full turnout gear and SCBA.  They don face pieces but do not go on air.  The Team Leader walks around the fire building if possible (commonly referred to as a 360) and then reports to the RIT32 at the tarp.  At 15 or 20-minute intervals, four new fresh members replace those that are dressed and ready
 

The RIT32 Team had the real thing occur in their first year of response activities.  In September of 2002, a firefighter became trapped at a house fire in Lewistown Borough.  Working along with firefighters from the Lewistown Fire Department and several other stations, the RIT32 help to successfully remove the trapped firefighter whose foot was caught in a hole in the first floor after a collapse.  He received minor injuries only.  The hour plus removal process was a valuable learning experience for the area firefighters and RIT32 members.  Many area fire stations have had the RIT32 leaders present information about the team since this incident and many have placed the RIT32 Team on automatic response to their confirmed structure fires.  Again the leaders or change makers have “stepped up to the plate” to make things happen.

RIT training is available from many different sources.  Jim Crawford of Pittsburgh, PA not only conducts his 2-day RICE class for requesting fire departments but also offers training opportunities through his website www.rapidintervention.com. It lists drills, instructors and the method to contact Jim for his “extensive hands-on” training classes.  He continues to lecture all over the U.S. at national fire service shows such as Firehouse Expo and FDIC.  Many different state fire-training academies offer programs.  I am familiar with those from Illinois, Delaware and from my employer the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, just to name a few.  We offer the 2-hour “awareness level” class, a 2-day basic hands-on class, a 2-day advanced hands-on class and a 12-hour “Large Area Team Search Operations” class.  Fire Protection Publications of the Oklahoma State University offers a CD driven program called “Rapid Intervention Teams”.  Greg Jakubowski and Mike Morton wrote it.  Many other private contractors offer training classes on firefighter rescue also.  And now WTC will be offering this type training through the Task Force I Training classes.

Equipment for a rit team can easily be found.  Most of the tools used by existing firefighter rescue teams are already owned by the fire department.  Forcible entry tools, ropes, spare SCBA, stokes baskets, hydraulic jacks, cribbing and lighting equipment are the main items the teams “stage” on a tarp similar to what many fire departments do at vehicle rescue operations.  Additional things such as thermal imaging cameras and lighted ropes are nice to have but not necessarily required for the team.  Many rit teams stage a hydraulic rescue tool system at their tarp especially if they have a hand pump to operate it.  This allows for the various tools to be operated in a smoke filled atmosphere without depending on a gasoline drive power plant. 

Taking the first step to form a firefighter rescue team has to be taken by someone.  Can you be that someone?  Like many other topics this too needs to be addressed.  Some fire department or a group of stations needs to form a team and begin training.  Although response to fires as a RIT team may not be glorious or allow members to practice their skills, it certainly provides a much needed service. Part of the “sell” to get folks involved is the assurance that someone will be standing by if they happen to be in trouble at a fire.  Having a trained and fully prepared firefighter rescue team at each working fire helps to guarantee the successful removal of a firefighter that may get lost or trapped.  As discussed, providing RIT team service may require several fire departments or stations to form a “regional or county” type team.  In areas served by volunteer or small career fire departments this is usually the most successful way to guarantee a team with sufficient resources.  
 
About the author: Patrick Pauly has 35 years in the fire service. He is employed full-time as a Fire Service Education Specialist at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, teaching and coordinating the activities of the Resident and “Academy On The Road” training programs. His main topic areas are structural fire fighting, safety and survival, and fire fighter rescue. As a volunteer he spent 31 years in the Lewistown, PA Fire Department, the last 7 as Deputy Chief.  He is currently 1st Asst. Chief with the West Granville Fire Co.  Pat is nationally certified as a Fire Fighter III, Fire Instructor II, and Fire Officer II, and was a PA Certified EMT for 26 years.  He holds an Associates Degree in Computer Science Technology.

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