Is Your Department Ready for a Rapid Intervention Event?

My March 2012 column at Fire Rescue Magazine on FirefighterNation: Forming a rapid intervention committee allows fire departments to focus on awareness, readiness and response to mayday events. By Billy Schmidt Published Thursday, March 15, 2012. 

Photo by Tim Olk

Photo by Tim Olk

On the fireground, what makes things real for you as a firefighter? What gets your heart racing, your blood pumping? Fire and angry, black smoke surrounding the house on arrival? Bystanders on the scene screaming that someone is still inside? Or the sound of “mayday, mayday!” over the radio at the height of an operation? Any of these can put your brain into overload—naval aviators call this “helmet fire.” Everything you experience during stressful situations will tax your ability to handle the crisis—but a mayday call will take you to your limit. So ask yourself this question: Whether you’re the downed firefighter calling the mayday, a member of the rapid intervention crew (RIC) responding to it or the incident commander trying to get control of it, are you really ready to handle it?

This question started me and some fellow firefighters on the road to the reality of rapid intervention and RICs. Over the years, we’ve witnessed the RIC responses of other fire departments, but we’ve never experienced one close to home. So we asked ourselves, other than the occasional “saving our own” drill, what have we really done to prepare? Are the firefighters and the other organizations we work with ready for a complex and stressful mayday event? This column will examine how this simple question sparked a “wildfire” of conversation among firefighters and fire departments in Palm Beach County and what we are now trying to do about it.

The Palm Beach County Rapid Intervention Committee
It all began at a rapid intervention training event. Crews were tasked with maneuvering through an obstacle course to quickly find and package a downed firefighter (mannequin with an SCBA), then remove it. The event was timed and focused on technique, communication and teamwork. It was a good practice drill but not a realistic simulation that would tax the crewmembers’ minds and force them to think and act under stress.

While discussing the tactical abilities and performance of the crews, the other district chiefs and I began to question each other about the command and control of the operation, which was not included in the training drill.

The result of this discussion: In September 2011, we established the Rapid Intervention Committee with the desire to proactively address rapid intervention operations in Palm Beach County. Our members wanted to form a collaborative partnership with all county fire departments so that we could develop a solution-centered approach to firefighter safety, survival and rescue. We knew that buy-in from all of the departments in the area was the only way to make this work, so the committee looked to a recent, successful approach that was implemented for county-wide high-rise operations as a model for development and delivery. Liaisons within our committee established connections with the local training officers and fire chiefs’ associations in the area.

The objectives for the Committee are simple: to raise awareness through prevention, to heighten the state of readiness, and to strengthen the level of rapid intervention response in the county. The committee project is divided into four working phases: research, development, delivery and implementation. The following four sub-committees were formed to narrow the work scope, with each sub-committee comprising firefighters from local fire departments who report to the main committee.

Policy and Protocol (how we work together)
Practices and Equipment (developing firefighter self-survival)
Staffing and Resources (a race against time)
Command and Control (bringing order to chaos)
We discovered early on that many questions remain unanswered and that there are a variety of ways to approach this critical subject. The committee is taking time to thoroughly research various books, trade publications, academic papers, podcasts, webcasts and several fire service conferences. The hope is to complete the majority of research by the end of spring 2012. All members feel passionate about getting this right. Our Committee wants more than just a few recommendations or operational procedures—we want to make real change!

Photo by Tim Olk

Photo by Tim Olk

Rapid Intervention Realities Roundtable Lessons
So where does your fire department stand with RIT operations? Have your fire department RIT operations changed over the years? Do you have RIT policies and procedures that are accepted and used? Do you provide realistic training for firefighter assist and survival?

Rapid intervention operations have come a long way since they were first established in the 1990s. Although firefighters have worked to develop better tactics to rescue their own, many questions remain unanswered. This was the focus of the Rapid Intervention Realities Roundtable that I hosted on Feb. 9 at the HEAT Conference 2012 in West Palm Beach.

The Roundtable was the result of an idea from the Committee that we had recently formed in Palm Beach County. Representatives of a variety of positions from several fire departments in the county gathered to discuss the improvement of firefighter safety, survival and rescue. Driven by a variety of questions ranging from policies to practices, here are some of the lessons learned from our roundtable discussion.

What are your department’s procedures for establishing an RIC?
• While everyone plans to assign an RIC, most do not have a predetermined unit assigned to rapid intervention. Because of the geography, staffing and resources available, most believe that the establishment of an RIC is grouped with other objectives (rescue and fire control). All follow the initial rapid intervention crew and two-in/two-out rule in the initial fire-ground operations.
Should countywide standards be used for consistency?
• While everyone agreed that countywide standards are probably the most important issue—and should be used— they voiced several obstacles that still need to be overcome including politics, equipment purchasing and home-control.
How does your department measure its rapid intervention capabilities?
• Although most departments do provide some kind of annual training for rapid intervention, most do not measure the capabilities. This is a hot topic in Florida since there is an ongoing debate about how to measure any firefighting capabilities.
Are there negative perceptions of being assigned to an RIC?
• All agreed that there are, but there shouldn’t be. This is probably because most firefighters misunderstand the why, how and what of the RIC.

How does your department respond to a mayday call?
• Again, because of geography, staffing and resources available, there was a difference in response. Some departments do have triggers in their SOGs that provide for additional alarms, but that is after the mayday is called. Many observed that they should have more fresh crews “on the bench” in case something does happen.
Do you front-load command staff to aid the incident commander (IC) and/or be prepared to take over a mayday or RIT operation?
• All agreed front-loading command staff is important for command and control of the complex rapid intervention operation. The IC’s span of control is quickly lost when an unexpected event occurs.

For everyone, this roundtable was a reminder, or maybe a realization, about the importance of rapid intervention and the many questions that remain unanswered. All agreed that everyone, from chief to firefighter, must understand and want to improve the basic skills and clear thinking required for a firefighter rescue. The RIC plans to host more roundtable discussions in the future.

Take The Rapid Intervention Realities Survey Here!

We know that rapid intervention is never truly rapid; it takes multiple crews several minutes just to locate and extricate one downed firefighter. We also know that many rescuers get into trouble and become potential victims themselves. So we have to ask ourselves: Am I prepared to call a mayday? Am I ready to respond to a mayday? Or, am I ready to command a mayday operation?

Being prepared and ready for a mayday and a rapid intervention operation just makes good sense. It costs little to implement and it saves lives. The hardest obstacle to overcome may be us! Are you ready?

Until next time, get prepared, be ready, and stay safe!

Other Related Sources:
• Peterson and Richards. Understanding the New RIT Standard: New NFPA 1407 provides a best practices resource for RIC operations. Training for Rapid Intervention Crews complies with NFPA 1407, 2010 ed.
• Dugan, Michael. Truck Companies as Rapid Intervention Teams.
• Goplin, Robert N. Human Factors Effecting Mayday Decisions in Green Bay Firefighters: Will they call for help when they need it?
• Dixon, David O. An Assessment of the Norfolk Fire Rescue Rapid Intervention Team Operation.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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