Tools of the trade: Rapid intervention company tools
The mission often requires a dynamic loadout of equipment based on probable risk factors and the construction and occupancy type of the fire building
When assigned as a rapid intervention company, it is imperative that we select the right tools for the mission.
Rapid intervention is highly dynamic with a seemingly infinite number of possibilities that can cause firefighter injuries and fatalities. The mission often requires a dynamic loadout of equipment based on probable risk factors and the construction and occupancy type of the fire building.
Keep in mind that just like we don’t pull the 1¾-inch crosslay for every fire we face, we don’t always need to take the entire rig into the building for rapid intervention. Sometimes less is more, and as such, we must evaluate what is needed and what tools we should be using.
Your RIC staffing will directly impact the tools you bring. A three-person RIC is going to be less equipped than a five- or six-person RIC, as there are simply fewer hands available to carry tools. However, regardless of staffing, every RIC should have the following tools:
- Thermal imager
- Search rope
- RIC bag
Let’s consider the role of each tool type.
Every member should be equipped with a portable radio. Some debate whether members should switch tactical channels during a mayday event. Regardless of the system that you employ, the bigger issue is maintaining clear communications and radio discipline. In my agency, we no longer switch channels due to the possibility of switching to the wrong channel at the highest-stakes event of our lives. Instead, we stay on the same tactical channel, but we stay off the air.
Radio discipline requires members to stay off the air when needed. Unless there is critical information to be shared, such as a collapse or hostile fire event, there is no real need to communicate via radio. My system uses a digital radio system in which only one person can talk at a time. In analog systems, many people can talk at once, but then transmissions are garbled.
During a mayday, the only people who need to talk are the RIC leader, to either command or the downed firefighter, or to a crew that locates the downed firefighter. Personal accountability reports, CAN reports for ventilation, and utility shutoff updates, while important, are not that crucial during a mayday event.
Additionally, members must know how to communicate clearly and effectively during the mayday. All members should drill on how to provide crucial information if they have to call a mayday. While some still follow the LUNAR approach – Location, Unit, Name, Air/Assignment, and Resources – this acronym can be difficult to recall, especially under stress. (If you don’t believe me, have someone call a LUNAR in your firehouse kitchen at random and see what they say.) Instead, we use “Who, What, Where and Air,” which is both easier to remember and shares the same critical information.
Firefighters must know how to switch channels with gloves on and how to speak while on SCBA. In any mayday drill, communications are a nightmare, and in a mayday incident, they are significantly worse – understandably so, as our adrenaline is up, and we tend to speak fast when stressed. Members must learn how to speak slowly and ensure that information is pertinent.
Similarly, crew leaders and officers must learn how to detach from the emotional impact of a downed firefighter in order to maintain situational awareness around them. They must not only maintain orientation but also monitor and communicate interior conditions and resources to the incident commander during the rescue.
Thermal imagers are an absolute necessity for any mayday activation and RIC deployment. The TIC can help guide the search and monitor fire conditions. Remember that the RIC is likely being activated into a hostile fire and possibly unstable structure for rescue.
In the simplest of terms, thermal imagers measure the heat of an object compared to the heat of the room. The hotter the object compared to the room, the whiter the image appears. Conversely, the colder the object compared to the room, the darker the object appears. Where we often fail in training is that we train in our firehouse or bays that are 68 degrees, looking for “victims” that are 98.6. They appear white in color on the screen. Realistically, and from experience, your victims will be over 100 degrees in a fire, and depending on the temperature of the compartment, will be darker or greyed out on the screen, making identification extremely difficult. Regular training is key!
Instead of looking for colors, we should look for shapes. People will appear like a blob. Look for ovals and circles – those represent your head and torso. Sharp corners are more like tables, couches or chairs.
When we enter a room, scan right to left low and across the floor to identify any holes in the floor, furniture and possible victims. Scan across the middle of the room, identifying windows and egress paths, and then scan high to identify convective currents of heat and flow paths, as well as fire and high-heat conditions.
When we locate the downed firefighter, the TIC can help us find a quick exit by scanning walls for doors and windows. Additionally, the TIC can be used to scan the downed firefighter’s SCBA bottle. The darker the bottle, the colder the bottle, meaning they are breathing or recently were breathing. Similarly, if the firefighter is unconscious, we can scan their facepiece to see if they are breathing.
The irons pack is the workhorse of the fireground. A well-trained firefighter with a Halligan and flat-head axe can accomplish almost anything. Forcible entry may be required to gain access to the downed firefighter, especially if they isolated themselves from the fire in a room or area of refuge (especially in office buildings, hotels or high-rises where doors lock going into stairwells and rooms). The RIC also may need to force their way out if conditions further deteriorate and members need to take out windows or doors.
The irons can be used to breach drywall, knock out studs, and clear a path. Don’t discount the leverage ability of a Halligan either. The Halligan can provide a quick lift if a firefighter is trapped under light debris. Again, training is key, and a forcible entry prop can pay dividends early.
Search ropes are often overlooked and don’t necessarily always need to be deployed. While deploying a rope in a 1,200-square-foot ranch may be overkill, deploying a rope in an 8,000-square-foot “McMansion” may be a necessity. Ropes must be practiced or else your RIC will be entangled in one another like a fishing net.
Search ropes can either be deployed from the point of entry as an avenue of orientation to the RIC team and other firefighters assisting in rescue, or they can be deployed from the downed firefighter to the nearest exit. There are pros and cons to both, but it is better to have a rope and not need it than to need a rope and not have it.
Our ropes are 200 feet and have knots tied at 20-foot increments for orientation. This setup helps us communicate to incident command how far into a building we are, but also, and importantly, the travel distance to extricate the firefighter – and how far inside additional companies will have to bring equipment.
By far the most important tool to bring to a mayday is the RIC cylinder. There are multiple setups of RIC bags, but the key is to not overload the bag. Ours is simple. It contains a 60-minute cylinder, 10 feet of universal transfill hoseline, a spare SCBA facepiece and regulator, webbing and door chocks.
The reason to keep things simple: The bag is needed to supply air, not be a carry-all for every possible contingency. The bag is a specialized piece of equipment and needs to be trained with regularly. The cylinder should be checked daily to ensure that it is at maximum pressure and the hoses checked regularly for rapid deployment.
Firefighters must know how to hook up the transfill line to a downed firefighter in zero-visibility conditions with gloves on. This basic skill takes repetition, but with a few drills can be mastered quickly. Firefighters also must know how to change out a facepiece in case the downed firefighter has an SCBA failure or has doffed their SCBA in panic or to escape and evade fire.
We bring more than the above-mentioned items to the fireground when assigned RIC, but the above items are the ones we take in every time. Additionally, we should bring portable ground ladders so that firefighters have additional escape options when working on upper floors. Don’t discount ladders to make basement rescues as well.
When assigned to the RIC, we bring saws but will also grab saws from other companies on scene as needed (you’re not the only fire truck there). One new advancement in this tool arena is the battery-powered saw to be used in IDLH environments, especially when needing to cut debris away during a collapse. Gas saws are great for window-to-door conversions in wood-frame dwellings, but a battery cut-off saw has some purpose on the interior where smoke conditions will choke out the motor of a gas unit.
We may consider our rescue tools – jacks, spreaders, cribbing and airbags – for collapsed buildings with members trapped. This is especially true if we have multiple members missing. These tools can be operated in smoke conditions, and while they are often used for vehicle extrication, can be used to lift debris such as walls and roof members. It isn’t something we normally train on, but it can be done. Again, training is key and knowing how to assemble these tools and use them in daily incidents will pay dividends when we need to use them outside of the box.
A craftsman is only as good as their tools and the same can be said for fireground operations. In rapid intervention, we must move “light and fast” and take the essentials to get the job done. Gaining fast access to our downed firefighter while maintaining situational awareness and calling for additional resources will lead to viable firefighter rescues. This is best done by taking radios, a TIC, a search line, irons pack and the RIC bag. If a wall needs to be cut down, call for saws. If a firefighter is buried in debris, then call for lifting equipment. Yet if a firefighter is down, low on air, lost, disoriented or injured, these above-mentioned functional tools will help rapidly extricate them and get them to safety. However, no tools will perform a rescue themselves. Only a well-trained firefighter knowing how to use their equipment in extreme and stressful conditions will perform a rescue. A mayday is the highest stakes event that we will face, so stay calm, effectively communicate, and train to win.