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Trainees practice firefighter rescue techniques during a 2014 exercise at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington.

Rapid intervention teams in the American paid-on-call and volunteer fire service

For firefighters, the threat of danger always looms. Many firefighters, from the youngest of rookies to the oldest of grey-haired veterans, spend countless hours pondering the many facets of the job. They sit alone in the quiet, and debate vigorously with each other atop apparatus tailboards, mulling over fire service topics ranging from tactics to equipment, pondering the concepts that will inform their actions should they find themselves in a desperate situation.

Everyone who has ever donned a set of bunker gear has pondered the possibility of disaster’s visitation. They’ve thought about the grim possibility that tragedy could befall them. They study reports on close calls and line-of-duty-deaths, maintaining an intimate familiarity with the industry’s morbid statistics. To that end, fire departments across the United States, from large career to small volunteer, have taken proactive steps to prevent future tragedies. They’ve implemented comprehensive annual physical examinations and testing procedures to detect and prevent cardiac issues. They’ve implemented gear washing and SCBA protocols to combat the growing incidence of cancer among the firefighter population.

In harnessing the lessons obtained from the tragedy of losing brothers and sisters in the line of duty, most American firefighters have drilled on mayday principles, and nearly collapsed during Denver Drill maneuver training on sweltering summer days during the fire academy. Others have familiarized themselves with window-to-door conversions, below grade extrication, and even the nausea-inducing Pittsburgh Drill. As such, firefighters across the nation have trained, to varying degrees, in the techniques required for both self-rescue and the rescue of their downed comrades.

Yet the implementation of standardized firefighter rescue practices, much less the development and maintenance of specialized units dedicated to the rescue of firefighters, has largely been limited to the typically more resource-laden career fire departments. Within large career departments, the all-important duty of firefighter rescue, whether the units responsible are designated as Rapid Intervention Teams (RIT), Rapid Intervention Crews (RIC), or Firefighter Assist and Search Teams (FAST), the responsibility of assuming such a critical set of duties often falls to existing units trained in advanced technical rescue operations, be it rescue companies or squads. In many other locales, career departments have rolled rapid intervention team duties into truck or even engine company spheres of responsibility.

However, non-career departments, whether identified as paid-on-call or volunteer, have struggled to efficiently and comprehensively address the glaring need for rapid intervention teams. While some corners of the non-career fire service remain unconvinced of the need for dedicated rapid intervention team resources, the majority of firefighters, particularly those who have professionally come of age following the mainstreaming of the “Everyone Goes Home” initiative, wholeheartedly believe in its necessity. Rather, the delayed or inadequate implementation of such safeguards can be attributed to a number of organizational and resource issues endemic to the non-career American fire service. Issues of financial constraints, time limitations for drill and training, personnel shortages, unpredictable staffing levels, and potentially uneven unit basing, all handicap the non-career fire service’s ability to take concrete steps toward the establishment of a sustainable and adequate rapid intervention team model. Despite the obstacles, which are not insignificant, the non-career fire service must evolve in order to mitigate the ever-present snares that may entangle firefighters when operating on the increasingly volatile modern fireground.

The United States Fire Administration’s most recent complete data set on firefighter line-of-duty-deaths found that the leading cause of firefighter death is still cardiac and stress or exertion-related illness. Yet the aforementioned data set indicated that nearly 20 percent of all firefighter on-duty fatalities stemmed from catastrophic fire events (falls, collapse, lost, caught/trapped). Perhaps more important is the changing dynamics of firefighting itself. In an April 2014 report published by UL, and entitled “Analysis of Changing Residential Fire Dynamics and Its Implications on Firefighter Operational Timeframes”, author Stephen Kerber commented on the changing dangers of structure fires, stating:

The changing dynamics of residential fires as a result of the changes in home size, geometry, contents, and construction materials over the past 50 years add complexity to the fire behavior. NFPA estimates that from 2003 to 2006, US fire departments responded to an average of 378,600 residential fires annually. These fires caused an estimated annual average of 2,850 civilian deaths and 13,090 civilian injuries. More than 70% of the reported home fires and 84% of the fatal home fire injuries occurred in one- or two- family dwellings, with the remainder in apartments or similar properties. For the 2001–2004 period, there were an estimated annual average 38,500 firefighter fire ground injuries in the US. The rate for traumatic firefighter deaths when occurring outside structures or from cardiac arrest has declined, while at the same time, firefighter deaths’ occurring inside structures has continued to climb over the past 30 years.

Kristofer Maynard of the 92nd Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, looks on as a trainee proceeds through an entanglement simulation during rapid intervention team training at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington.

Kristofer Maynard of the 92nd Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, looks on as a trainee proceeds through an entanglement simulation during rapid intervention team training at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington.

When taken together, the data trends of the past decade indicate that despite advances in technology and innovations in tactics, the incidence of firefighters requiring rescue will remain prevalent in the years to come. Studies examining the many facets of on-scene firefighter rescue, namely those out of Phoenix and Asheville, clearly indicate the complexity and resource-intensive nature of rapid intervention team operations, yet still herald the value of such an asset. Many are well-aware of the general industry consensus, corroborated by the aforementioned studies, that the rescue of a single downed firefighter requires a dozen or more personnel, and that often one or more of the rescuers finds themselves in need of rescue.

To that end, in a 2004 interview with Fire Engineering, FDNY Deputy Chief, Thomas Dunne, alluded to both the relative ease large career departments experience in establishing dedicated firefighter rescue units, and the need for smaller noncareer departments to utilize a system that affords them a comparable dedicated resource. In the interview Chief Dunne stated, “A department as large as ours has the resources to dedicate an entire unit for firefighter safety. This is a tremendous asset. Areas of the country that do not have the same level of resources could benefit greatly from having a mutual-aid system that provides a RIT.”

With all of that having been said, the question becomes, what can cash and personnel-strapped non-career fire departments do to institute a more capable rapid intervention team process. Currently, many non-career departments utilize the deck system to form a three or four man rapid intervention team. It’s certainly better than nothing, but the system possesses several acute flaws. First, it’s unlikely to be fully-established during the opening, and typically most dangerous and tumultuous, stages of fire attack. Aside from such a unit being understaffed, it’s not uncommon for assigned personnel to effectively rotate in and out of a RIT role during a fire event, a condition which promotes fatigue among would-be rescuers, as well as unfamiliarity with the continuum of fireground operations. Additionally, virtually all of the personnel assigned to a RIT role have only been intermittently trained in the basics of firefighter rescue, a task almost unparalleled in its technical and emotional difficulty.

True to the American fire service’s history, the ferocity of modern structure fires coupled with the accelerated timelines for the occurrence of catastrophic fire events, almost necessitates the continued employment of aggressive interior attack operations and their supporting tactics, and it’s here that disaster lurks. Many non-career firefighters don’t possess a sufficient level of technical training to safely and effectively conduct a RIT operation, nor do many of them necessarily possess the time required to develop a near technician-level proficiency in RIT operations.

However, that’s not to say that there’s nothing that can be done, that there’s no improvements that can be made to advance a lifesaving system. The broad theory proffered here is one that relies on increased inter-agency cooperation and coordination. For many non-career departments, it’s simply impossible to develop and staff a sustainable rapid intervention team on an individual department level. However, it’s possible to pool the resources of several municipalities, or even the whole of a county, to form a collective rapid intervention team, with certain agencies sponsoring apparatus and equipment, and tie it into departmental box alarm systems so that its assembly can begin on the first page. Overall, it’s a process that’s already in widespread use across the country for specialized rescue units such as dive teams, hazmat teams, and structural collapse teams.

The aforementioned proposal is only a crude notion, and merely expresses the belief that there is still room for organizational improvement with regards to rapid intervention team concept development among non-career fire departments. The fire service has repeatedly borne witness to the reality that calamity is never far away, and that should it strike, departments large and small must be prepared to launch the single-most difficult operation imaginable, the success of which may very well determine a firefighter’s survival. To that end, the goal must always be to evolve, to constantly pursue increased operational capability and efficiency.

For more information, email jesseheitz@gmail.com

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Jesse A. Heitz formerly served as a firefighter with the Chaska Fire Department, and as the Training Officer for the Carver County Fire Departments' Hazardous Materials Response Group. He is the author of Fire Resistance in American Heavy Timber Construction: History and Preservation.