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Firefighter in distress: Cuing the rapid intervention team

Rescuing a firefighter who has fallen through a floor in an involved structure fire may require establishing an alternate means of egress

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Rescuing a downed firefighter from an involved structure is difficult even with the proper training, but without any form of training, it can quickly turn into a disaster.


In early 2001, a firefighter died in the line of duty in a small supermarket in a metropolitan city in the Southwest. The loss of this firefighter sparked a significant amount of discussion in the fire service about how we operate in mayday situations, as well as how we utilize rapid intervention teams (RITs).

Most importantly, it exposed what an enormous task it is to successfully remove a downed firefighter from any type of structure, and revealed the lack of training many fire departments had in this area.

Rescuing a downed firefighter from an involved structure is difficult even with the proper training, but without any form of training, it can quickly turn into a disaster. Departments should train annually on firefighter removal in a controlled training setting to ensure that everyone is comfortable with gaining access to the downed firefighter, packaging and removal.

Calling a mayday

The very first thing that should be covered in any department’s RIT training is the process of declaring a mayday. There are, of course, many different policies, so it is up to your organization to determine how this should happen. One of the most important items that must be stressed to members, is that they should not be afraid to declare mayday if they get in a situation where they need help. Even if they “just” become a little disoriented, they should not be nervous about calling for help over the radio.

Too often, the culture of an organization will make it uncomfortable to admit a problem and a firefighter will wait until it is too late to call for help.

Practice rescuing a firefighter with the drag rescue device

With mayday protocols established, firefighters should work to develop the process of a downed firefighter removal and practice the skill until every member has mastered it.

Most modern turnout gear is manufactured with a drag rescue device (DRD) built into the upper back/neck area of the coat. However, firefighters rarely train on their use. Have your crews dress out in complete turnout gear with an SCBA and practice utilizing the DRD in a simulated firefighter down rescue.

Start in the engine bay initially to ensure everyone has a basic understanding of the equipment and then move to an inside room of the firehouse or training center with carpet to make the scenario more realistic of a residential structure. Without damaging the building, have the crews work to remove the simulated victim from a back bedroom that requires travel down a long hallway and around several corners. If you have access to a stairway, have crews practice navigating the victim down the stairs while maintaining control of the victim throughout.

Rescuing a firefighter below grade

A challenging scenario requiring training occurs when a firefighter falls through a floor during an involved structure fire. This can happen during the initial fire attack with the primary crew into the building. The challenges in this situation are the lack of access to the victim and the distance to the victim, which could be 10 feet below grade if the firefighter has fallen into a basement.

The initial action should be to ensure the firefighter is protected with a hose stream and a mayday is declared with the location and name of the victim. The incident commander will deploy a RIT team to assist with the rescue and those crews operating within close proximity should move to support the rescue.

If the victim is able to grab the hose and support themselves, the hose line can be used as a lifeline to pull the victim back to the first floor, or a short ladder can be introduced to the hole. However, if the victim is incapacitated, rescuers may be required to establish alternate means of egress to the basement to gain access to the victim. Be sure to train on gaining entry into a structure from multiple access points.

As the rescue is attempted, crewmembers must be aware of the structural integrity of the floor, as it may be weak from the initial collapse. With this as a major concern, place roof ladders across the floor to distribute the weight of the rescuers working above the victim.

When training for this scenario, work through several different methods of victim removal to determine what works best for your resources at a structure fire. If you only have a limited number of firefighters, how you manage those resources can make a huge difference in the outcome of the downed firefighter.

Train hard and be safe.

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.

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