What does all this mean? It means that we have fires burning hotter than gasoline and consuming oxygen more quickly under construction that is designed to hold heat — reducing the time to flashover — and that fails (falls down) more quickly. To be sure, fire fighting today is nothing like it has ever been. The changes in fuel packages and construction have created an extremely dangerous environment that we are called upon to enter routinely. Battling modern structure fires requires enhanced personal protective equipment, command and coordination, and a group of trained firefighters dedicated to rescuing the firefighters inside should they become disoriented, lost, trapped or incapacitated.
The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) number 29 part 1910 subpart g number 4, provides that at least two “employees” enter the fire (“Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health IDLH} Atmosphere”) and remain in visual or voice contact with one another at all times. These employees must also utilize self-contained breathing apparatus. Additionally, at least two “employees” must be located outside the IDLH atmosphere and one of those individuals may be assigned an additional role such as incident commander or safety officer, as long as the individual is able to perform assistance or rescue activities without jeopardizing the safety or health of any firefighter working at the incident.
It is important to note that the CFR refers to “employees” but this term includes volunteers. This is the infamous two in/two out regulation, which quickly became “two in/one out” after its original publication. So, according to the CFR which, is enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), we can have two people inside while having only one person dedicated to rescuing the firefighters inside and another that can serve as the Incident Commander but must be available to assist in rescuing the firefighters inside.
This was the federal government’s best response to us routinely not having backup firefighters in place. Prior to “two in/two out,” in urban departments, this was frequently referred to as “don’t run out of stuff, make sure you’ve got an extra company or two.” In rural areas, having extra people was an infrequently encountered luxury. But imagine that you are on the scene of a structure fire with five people and you are serving as the Incident Commander and part of the “two out.” The other member of our two out is trained at the same level as the firefighters inside, but has no rescuing the rescuer/rapid intervention training. The fire is not visible yet but there is brown to black turbulent smoke issuing from every crack and crevice of the building. You have two firefighters inside when suddenly a flashover occurs associated with a simultaneous “Mayday” issued by one of the interior firefighters.
The law says that you should join the other member of your “two out” and initiate a rescue of the firefighters inside. This forces your fifth person at the scene — possibly the pump operator who has not done a 360 degree walk around of the building — to assume command. At the point you enter the building to affect a rescue of the interior firefighters, you are at the greatest tactical disadvantage that exists in the fire service. You are now operating with four personnel inside and one person outside. While the arrival of other personnel may be imminent, they will be forced to report to the fifth person outside — possibly the pump operator who still has not done a 360 degree walk around of the building because they have been busy trying to establish water supply — continue fire control efforts, and hopefully screaming for more help on the radio. This is two in/two out and it varies somewhat from rapid intervention.
I submit that rapid intervention is on a different plane than “two out.” A firefighter that is trained in rapid intervention is much different than one who lacks the training. If you ask any firefighter what they learned in rapid intervention, they will tell you that they learned a lot of techniques to avoid becoming trapped, lost or incapacitated. They also learned how to maneuver through walls, how to perform a coordinated search, and how to extricate victims using a number of techniques. Above all, they will likely tell you that they learned that rapid intervention is not very rapid. In fact, in many cases, it requires a large number of firefighters and a tremendous amount of time. Consider firefighter Brett Tarver from Phoenix, AZ. He became disoriented and lost at the Southwest Supermarket Fire on March 14, 2001 in downtown Phoenix. The fire began as a dumpster fire and spread into the supermarket. Initial entry revealed only light smoke inside but fire progression rapidly led to Tarver being separated from his crew in the back of the store. Tarver issued a mayday and the rapid intervention crew was deployed within the same minute. They found Tarver a mere nine minutes later but it took 43 minutes to extricate him from the building using multiple rapid intervention crews and sadly firefighter Tarver succumbed to his injuries.
I once participated in a rapid intervention drill as part of the third-in rapid intervention team. The first and second teams had gained access to the room where the simulated victim was by cutting wires, breaching walls and navigating several confined spaces. However, they were unable to locate the victim. Our team was able to reach the victim but our air supply forced us to turn back immediately after securing an alternative air supply on the victim. Let that sink in a second. We were the third group of four people that entered the building and all we did was secure a mask from a RIT air pack and tell the simulated victim that the next rapid intervention team would begin the extrication process. Twelve people spent and the victim has not even begun to move to the outside yet. The simulated victim was eventually removed from the building by rapid intervention team number five — that is persons 17, 18, 19, and 20. If we put this scenario at our fire that has five firefighters at it, you can easily see how unmatched we are against the fire and the building.
Rapid intervention is not just two out. It requires a level of training that is much higher than basic interior fire fighting. Rapid intervention training also provides an environment where firefighters are taxed physically and emotionally to, and frequently past, their limits. This teaches the firefighters to control their actions and thinking when they are physically and mentally exhausted, as well as how to continue to operate when their bodies think that they cannot. This is not something that you gain experience in by spending 10 minutes in a burn building during a fire attack evaluation at the end of a basic fire fighting course. Coordination and communication is paramount whenever a mayday occurs. The only reason we were able to reach the simulated victim during the scenario I previously described was because everyone was working on the same page. If everyone were working from a different entrance to try to reach the victim, it would have taken a much larger number of personnel — as if 20 weren’t enough.
Rapid intervention is not just someone sitting outside hoping that nothing bad happens inside. Instead, rapid intervention teams/crews should be constantly evaluating the building — for both ingress/egress and likely layout — compiling appropriate equipment to affect a rescue, and maintaining vigilance while understanding that they will likely require additional support from supplemental personnel. Removing the Incident Commander when a firefighter becomes lost, disoriented, trapped or incapacitated is not at all ideal. In fact, the contrary is true. The original IC will likely need to coordinate the rapid intervention activities while another officer will need to assume command of the entire incident and coordinate incoming resources. Finally, consider your resources. In many departments, a mayday automatically triggers the next sequential alarm. You should recognize now that an incident requiring rapid intervention will likely not be rapid and will require an enormous amount of personnel and equipment.
There was a lot of fire service resistance to the issuance of the two in/two out regulation. Perhaps this was but the first step in where we need to go. What we need today are firefighters who understand the changes in fires and buildings that are occurring. We need firefighters who are trained beyond basic interior suppression and understand the complexities of rescuing one of their own. Beyond that, we need to recognize that two firefighters inside with two firefighters outside — one of which that is serving as the Incident Commander — is setting ourselves up for what could potentially be a disastrous failure.
Be safe and do good.