Rapid intervention teams (RITs) became a subculture within our organizations. We identified critical equipment; converted old packs into RIT self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs); wrote policies; designated compartments to store the preassembled equipment; and made RIT an everyday, every incident assignment. It became the thing everyone wanted to train on, but no one wanted to get the assignment on the fire because it meant you were not on the inside involved in the action. There are numerous RIT success stories out there, and this is a practice that we must continue, but be careful to not fall into a different trap.
The Meantwell Fire Department Story
The Meantwell Fire Department Story is a fable I created to illustrate how even the best of intentions can get out of control. The story is based on a combination of real events, witnessed mindsets, and decision making that has occurred since the advent of RIT.
The Meantwell Fire Department has three stations consisting of three engine companies and a minimum staffing level of three on each engine. Two years ago, the minimum staffing level was four; however, because of an economic downturn, the staffing levels were lowered to three to reduce overtime and personnel cost. Several vacancies were not filled.
Captain Smith is the Station 1 officer and pulls double duty as the department’s training officer. He was successful in getting all the members of the Meantwell Fire Department through a basic 24-hour firefighter rescue/RIT training program earlier in the year. Smith had requested and received funding that allowed the department to build training props; buy some videos; cover some limited overtime; and purchase a few needed items that included three thermal imaging cameras, three RIT SCBAs with RIT bags, three rescue baskets, ropes, pulleys, extra-large carabiners, and reflective “RIT” decals for the designated RIT compartments.
The members absolutely loved the training, and morale had never been higher in the organization. Crews were making their own RIT obstacle courses and drilling most every day. Several members improved on the techniques they were taught, and some even invented completely new solutions to firefighter rescue problems that they could foresee happening. Neighboring departments were invited over, and they too began devouring the techniques and training. By the end of the year, the department had logged a record 10,000 hours of training, with more than half of those related to RIT and firefighter rescue.
Put To the Test
Only six months after completing all the training, the Meantwell Fire Department was tested. Engine 3 was first due on a residential structure fire. Working that day were Captain Rogers, Engineer Franks, and Firefighter Beck. On scene, the captain transmitted a perfect size-up and declared a working incident. He sent Beck around to do the 360 while he gathered information about the occupants from a lady in the front yard. The engineer stretched a preconnected 1¾-inch line to the front door. As Beck made his way around the house, he thought, finally after two years since joining the department, he was getting fire. He saw the rear bedroom window had given way and thick black smoke was billowing out. He rushed around the last side and to the front. Rogers was waiting at the open front door as a nice steady flow of black smoke exited from the top across the porch and up into the air.
The second engine arrives and the captain instructs them to lay a supply line and assume RIT. Rogers can see the excitement in Beck’s eyes. As Beck is tightening his chinstrap and lowering his ear flaps, the captain calmly hands him the nozzle and says, “O.K. kid, let’s go. I’m right behind you.” Beck enters low and feels the heat but doesn’t see any fire. He knows he needs to work his way back to the right and toward the back bedroom. He runs into a sofa, moves around it, and finds the hallway. The turn around the sofa into the hallway creates a snag in the hose, so Rogers drops back to manage the hose and feed slack.
Engine 2 has established the water supply and its captain and firefighter have the RIT equipment staged with a backup line in place. Rogers starts to move back up the line. He hears a loud noise and then a rush of flames spreads rapidly over the ceiling above him and out the front door. He hears Beck screaming for help, obviously in pain. Rogers declares a Mayday and calls for RIT.
Engine 2’s engineer has just joined the crew. They start flowing water at the front door and move in, knocking the fire down as they go. Rogers makes it to Beck, who is lying on top of the nozzle nearly unconscious. He checks him and hears the regulator flowing with each breath. Rogers moves Beck off the nozzle and opens the line to knock down the remaining fire over their head in the back bedroom. The RIT makes its way to Engine 3’s members and does some quick packaging on Beck, and two of the members drag him out through the front door. Rogers can tell he is burned, but he can move on his own. The engineer from Engine 2 helps guide Rogers out of the structure.
Beck has some second- and third-degree burns that will take him six months to recover from, but he will make a full recovery and return to work. Rogers has some second-degree burns on his wrist and neck and will be out for three months. The crew of Engine 2 has no injuries and eventually receives the department’s medal of valor for saving the lives of two of the department’s own.
A critique of the incident is held, and the neighboring fire departments are called to participate. Well, it seems that everything went just perfect. If it had not been for the vision of Captain Smith and the support of the city council in providing the funding for the RIT training, this incident could have very easily resulted in one or two LODDs. Newspaper articles reinforced the progressiveness of the Meantwell Fire Department and how the specialized training members received just last year made the difference. Smith was recognized as the City of Meantwell’s Employee of the Year and received the State Fire Association Fire Officer of the Year award.
Three months later, the fire chief’s proposal to increase the staffing levels back up to four per apparatus was rejected by the city council; the town just did not have the additional $200,000 to cover the overtime needed. The chief was successful in getting a one-time $50,000 grant to build onto the existing burn building. This addition would allow for the permanent placement of the RIT props and allow the department to continue its highly successful RIT training for another year.
A quick audit of the Meantwell Fire Department’s training records showed more than 5,000 hours of training logged on firefighter rescue and RIT. The 32-member department also had some 3,500 hours of EMS training. The other 1,500 hours covered a vast array of topics including 750 hours of firefighter safety. Sadly, only 18 hours were listed as hose training, six hours on size-up, and only four hours on fire behavior. Remember, these are total department hours-not individual hours. The cost of medical bills for the two injured members was more than $300,000, and the department spent $60,000 in overtime covering their positions. So what’s the point in telling this story?
Moral of the Story
As fire service leaders become more educated and less experienced, we have seen a 30-year progression of jumping on and committing all our resources to the “new thing,” always at the expense of basic firefighting training. We also tend not to alter our tactics with a decrease in staffing levels. We try to operate the same way with one, two, three, or fewer people on the scene. You may read this story and think, yeah, it was a success, just like the members of the Meantwell Fire Department and their leadership did.
But there was one oddball dissenter in the ranks. While he enjoyed the RIT training and found it valuable, he argued that more time needed to be spent on the basic fireground operations, like stretching and advancing hoselines, searching, and knowing when to and when not to vent. He didn’t believe that the resources should be committed early to RIT but rather should be focused on getting the first hoseline in place and operating. He thought it was insane to have someone standing outside when that member could be used to advance the line in place. It was a radical approach to these new problems that the fire service faced.
Of course, no one wanted to hear that. They were too busy learning to slide down the ladder headfirst and building mechanical advantages to lift firefighters over the windowsill. One crew even boasted that they could get all three members out of the window, down the ladder, and on the ground in less than 18 seconds. The lone outcast simply stated, “If you had an extra person on that initial line, you could move it in place and put the fire out about two minutes faster than our current practice. This would prevent you from having to bail out the window or call RIT to come and get you.”
The late Tom Brennan once told me, “We never had RIT in my day, but we always had a couple of companies unassigned to move in for whatever reason. We just called it having enough people on scene to get the job done.” It seems our lack of resources, lack of basic skills, and lack of experience force us to create new ways to treat the symptoms without treating the root problem. It’s a little bit out of the box thinking, but one engine with four members is more effective than four engines with one member each. Captain Rogers and his crew were set up to fail. The decrease in staffing and the heavy focus on RIT led to a natural course of bad decision making while trying to do the best he could with the resources. Rogers sent the least experienced member to do the 360 and didn’t get an account of the smoke pressure and conditions. Beck had not been trained that an open door should be considered ventilation and that it takes less than two minutes for the fire to rapidly expand to the front door if no water is applied. With only two members on the hose, the experienced member (Rogers) was stuck going back and humping hose instead of being up with the inexperienced guy explaining what was happening and directing him to flow water and cool the environment, even if they saw no flames.
The emphasis on RIT caused him to be focused on establishing the RIT instead of reading the conditions and requesting help with the line. The second engine was focused on making sure all the right equipment was staged on the RIT tarp instead of noticing the changing conditions or the struggle with moving the initial line. Everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do on paper. Unfortunately, no one was thinking. The outcome was bad and preventable but was hailed a huge success.
Please don’t stop doing your RIT and firefighter rescue training, but please spend the majority of your time training on preventing the need for RIT. Start with properly staffing that first line, even if it means assigning two or three companies to it based on your staffing.