By Paul Strong
Whether paid or volunteer, we have a responsibility to maintain a proficient skillset in many different disciplines. When a firefighter is in distress in a burning building, we have a responsibility to that firefighter, his or her family, and to the department. Funding, staffing, equipment … it doesn’t matter what the issues are when you have limited air (life) on your back and you can’t get out. You may or may not have control over the “issues” in your department, but you do have control over at least one thing, personal accountability.
Rapid intervention should not be just another term. If you are assigned to the rapid intervention crew (RIC) on scene, then own it. Your responsibility starts prior to the fire scene; it is there every day; every shift; and every opportunity you create to get better with your knowledge, skills, and abilities. Why does it seem so easy to let our rapid intervention skills slide to the back burner? I can think of many reasons, but once I step back and look at the bigger picture, I call them excuses. The bigger picture is a firefighter’s life being at stake in your presence--while you are responsible and are being held accountable for your actions (or inactions). In 2014, the U.S. Fire Administration reported that 17 firefighters died while involved with interior operations at a structure fire. Although this is a relatively small number, only one firefighter down is too many.
It’s time for your organization to re-engage (or engage) in rapid intervention preparedness. Chief officers need to revisit their policies, training officers need to revisit their procedures, company officers need to revisit (or visit) their leadership abilities, and firefighters need to continually practice their craft. Responding to an alarm is reactive; being prepared is proactive. Even a well-prepared department will react to a firefighter death in its organization. The members will study the event, the policies and procedures surrounding the event, the training effort, approach, and delivery models, and many more things to learn from the tragedy (as we all should). Often, it’s this point at which much needed change is made. I believe we can reduce the risk of losing a firefighter on scene if we become more proactive in rapid intervention preparedness.
Where to Begin
Policies. Start with your policies. When was the last update? Do policies even exist? If they do, are they well-written or “over” written? Does everybody have a good working knowledge of the policies? Policies are the foundation from which you will operate. They guide our actions on the training ground and on the alarm. Without this foundation, people will start freelancing on scene. Since firefighters are “go-getters,” there will be many people working within an unorganized effort; this could be a problem. Critical decision making during changing conditions is best served when there is a foundation of solid policies that guided us through our training and experiences.
Training. The meaning and the intent of the word training has been reduced in my opinion. All too often, our training consists of going through the motions to remain compliant. Although there are many routine things that can’t be spiced up in a training evolution, I still see too many missed opportunities to develop meaningful training. Nothing beats realistic training. Since it’s not a good idea to drop a building on a firefighter for training purposes, we need to be creative. Develop evolutions based on realistic possibilities; build props if needed. Seek acquired structures to train in. Find that house or business that is boarded up or slated for demolition. Contact the owners and see what you can do. This will give your crews unfamiliar territory to train in, similar to what they will experience in the next fire they go to. It takes creativity to make your training meaningful and effort to make it come to life. But, it’s worth it.
Leadership. This is a word that’s hard to define with certainty. Becoming an effective fire service leader doesn’t have a clear beginning, and there is absolutely no end. An event doesn’t take place or a certificate you can earn that says, “You’re now a leader.” Developing effective leadership skills is a process that occurs over time. Company officers must be effective leaders. They are the people who are choreographing the attempted rescue at the company level. A company officer who is an effective leader will have developed or is developing a crew of leaders. This crew will be proactively prepared for the RIC deployment and operate as a well-oiled machine. Rapid intervention can’t be approached with anything less than a well-choreographed crew of skilled people that operate as a well-oiled machine. Wouldn’t you want that crew coming for you?
Complacency. It kills firefighters as does living in the glory of the past and about how good you were or think you were. We have all become complacent at times. We have all thought about the evolution we’ve done a thousand times and know we’re good at. However, the reality may be that we have not performed this evolution for a long time and our skills may be somewhat rusty. Is mediocrity good enough for rescuing a firefighter? Be responsible for yourself, and take action to become better. If a firefighter is trapped in a burning building and your rapid intervention efforts aren’t successful, you will be your own worst critic concerning your preparedness and whether you could have been more effective. This emotional burden will haunt the toughest firefighter.
Rapid intervention is about stepping up to the plate and holding yourself, your peers, and your subordinates accountable. You owe it to your brothers and sisters to be proactive and keep your skills highly tuned, and they owe it to you. It’s too easy to put this on the back burner because of the low frequency of the need for firefighter rescues. As stated previously, one firefighter in trouble is one too many. The fire service has a strength that doubles as a weakness--the team concept. There is no argument about how a team in the fire service can be very effective and successful. However, the weakness of the team is that it gives individuals the opportunity to hide their personal weaknesses under the team umbrella. Not all fire service members may take advantage of this opportunity, but all fire service members have the opportunity to be honest about their weaknesses. Be honest about your skills and performance because excellence is found in openness, not bravado. Step back and evaluate your personal readiness, your crew readiness, and your organizational readiness for rapid intervention. Identify any weaknesses, and work on them. Also, identify your strengths and capitalize on them for the betterment of your department and its members. Being average is not good enough.
Paul Strong, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is a shift captain and acting battalion chief for the Valley Regional Fire Authority in King County, Washington. He is the creator and lead instructor of RIC for REAL, The Road to Fire Service Leadership, and Fireground Practices--First on Scene. He has been a department training officer, an incident safety officer, a medical program specialist, a hazmat technician, and rope/dive rescue technician for a technical rescue team. He has lectured across the country on rapid intervention, leadership, and tactics; he developed the original hands-on RIC for REAL training. He is an adjunct instructor at the Washington State Fire Training Academy and has been published in Fire Engineering magazine.