Our department is a combination department that is surrounded by volunteer companies of a countywide system. While the county volunteer departments have traditionally worked with each other, the municipal departments have been separate from them. We have mutual aid agreements with county and municipal departments and the relationships have grown tremendously. Our interest in rapid intervention started around 2003 and many of our drill nights began to include basic survival skills and firefighter rescue techniques that by now most departments are training on. Several members of our department and neighboring agencies thought it would be beneficial to begin conducting officer meetings with all the municipal fire departments in the county. Fire officers from Honea Path, Williamston, and Belton were now coming together to share ideas in making our departments better. We are now officially organized as the Municipal Fire Officer’s Association and are constantly adding more agencies to our membership. As these meetings began the idea of rapid intervention started to be tossed around and it was decided that more research and a needs assessment would be needed. Over a few months, the concept was developed for our department and two other neighboring municipalities to provide RIT response on all structure fires. The county fire system was supportive of our plans but at that time was not ready to join in. Standard Operating Guidelines were written for the RIT response with the help of NFPA, OSHA and other resources for how we would handle these responses. Those guidelines were reviewed and updated multiple times before a final draft was agreed upon and adopted. If our department received a structure fire response we would be assisted by Williamston and Honea Path. They would each respond with two members and equipment to the scene to join our initial rapid intervention team. This would always provide at least a four member rapid intervention team on all structure fires during the first alarm assignment. While it does take a few extra minutes for them to arrive on scene, we were doing our best to solve the RIT issue. If you don’t have a rapid intervention response plan, this type of set up may work in your system.
Like any other big change in the fire service, we faced obstacles as we strived to put our rapid intervention plan into place. Some of the following were major areas of concern as we worked to achieve our goals.
We are reminded all too often that seconds matter during an emergency; therefore you don’t want to lose valuable time during dispatch. Several work sessions were held with our County 911 system to begin improving our current procedures. Consider examining your current protocol during the initial phases of planning. If possible, some re-programming of your mobile and portable radios will allow your members to communicate with each other and create some standardization. Since all three of our departments operate on separate frequencies we felt it was vital to include the rapid intervention team tone out with the initial dispatch. This would notify the primary agency for a full response and then the two assisting agencies for their RIT members. This has worked well and saved several minutes. Once the RIT truck responds they change to the primary agency’s radio frequency. This allows those responding to hear all radio traffic and be better prepared upon arrival. It also notifies the incident commander or operations officer that RIT has arrived on scene. Two years ago our department sponsored a regional AFG grant to purchase a large amount of 800 MHz radio equipment. While we primarily operate on VHF frequencies the acquisition of this equipment has added more possibilities to our communication capabilities. We issue a portable radio to every firefighter so they can be ready in the event of communicating an emergency. While this may not be possible for every fire department, having a few portables on each apparatus is crucial. If a responding firefighter does not have a radio how can they declare an emergency or effectively communicate on the fireground?
Standardization has to begin by reviewing each department’s equipment. Take the time to meet with mutual aid stations and create an equipment cache. This will help to determine what is needed and what should be updated. One huge concern is the type of breathing apparatus being used. Fortunately for us, all three of our departments have the same type of SCBA and for the most part our other equipment is identical. If your neighboring departments have different models of SCBA or equipment, work to overcome those challenges.
The Assistance to Firefighter Grants program has aided us tremendously in acquiring much needed equipment and updating older items. During our work sessions we evaluated the type of equipment needed, what we already had and spent time talking with each department before making a purchase. We placed equipment in service that was beneficial to all parties and would properly equip our rapid intervention teams. Some equipment that was purchased included air supply packs, search rope, thermal imaging cameras, ventilation saws, extrication equipment, and various hand tools. We also purchased cable cutter, webbing, and carabiners for every member on the roster. Examine the buildings and hazards in your area to determine what will help your firefighters be more efficient when working with other agencies and providing rapid intervention.
Everyone involved understood that without solid training our RIT plan would not be very effective. All our planning wouldn’t be effective if our responders were not competent enough to perform a firefighter rescue. Consider requiring a base level of training or experience before allowing firefighters to respond to RIT calls. Rapid intervention requires advanced skills; therefore, we don’t allow basic level members to respond.
Since rapid intervention training can encompass so many areas. don’t get overwhelmed during the initial phases. Start with self-rescue techniques, such as air conservation and entanglement, to build confidence in your member’s skill level. Early on our firefighters practiced techniques from James Crawford (Pittsburgh Drill), Denver Fire Department (Denver Drill), and the Nance Drill. Educating your members on these benchmark cases will provide your crews with great drills and help them understand the need for rapid intervention.
Our initial trainings allowed members from each department the opportunity to work together and become familiar with different equipment. Calling a Mayday, locating and delivering air to a downed firefighter were critical skills for our members to learn first. Whether you use LUNAR or UCAN for mayday calls, make sure everyone is familiar and you train at least quarterly on the parameters for calling an emergency. We spent a substantial amount of time training with our RIT packs and learning to complete regulator and full face piece changes and supplying the universal RIC connection in decreased visibility. From there our members learned different search techniques and removal of a downed firefighter.
Advanced skills using air bags, extrication tools, and lowering systems are being added to the program. Our departments have conducted several multi-company drills at acquired structures. These drills have allowed us to monitor our progress and determine future training needs. Ongoing training is a must so take advantage of state academy classes, specialized schools and your own members to deliver quality training.
Our plan is still an ongoing process to better provide a level of safety for all of our firefighters. We have made changes and improvements along the way. We all understand that being progressive in this area will ultimately save the life of a firefighter or civilian. For this reason alone we will continue providing rapid intervention to any agency that calls us. Our plan is not perfect and we don’t have all the answers, but we are being proactive rather than reactive. I applaud the leaders of Honea Path, Williamston and Belton for recognizing a need and reaching a common goal. Continue to strengthen relationships with your neighboring agencies and if you don’t have a rapid intervention response plan in place, look to each other for answers.