The topic of short staffed operations is often overlooked, despite it being an issue that many municipalities deal with across the country. Understaffed fireground operations, specifically understaffed rapid intervention team (RIT) operations, is an important topic to address for any fire department. Short staffed operations change the way we operate on the fireground. Understaffed RIT operations directly affect our safety on the fireground. Not being able to rescue a downed firefighter because the rapid intervention crew was not trained to operate understaffed is unacceptable.
Short staffed RIT operations affect both volunteer and career departments across the country as more and more departments are facing cuts and staffing shortages. A volunteer fire department may find that they have every seat full for a structure fire on a Saturday afternoon, only to have three firefighters responding to a structure fire that comes in on Monday morning. This may actually be a little better then a career department where units are always short staffed. Although they know that they will be short staffed and can train and prepare for understaffed operations, it doesn’t change the fact that they will always have fewer firefighters than they need. Regardless of the type of fire department, every firefighter needs to know how to operate, and most important, how to be successful when operating on a rapid intervention team that is short staffed. We cannot fail to rescue a brother or sister because we were not prepared to operate on an understaffed RIT.
Based on past events, it is recommended that there be at least six members assigned to a RIT. However, most departments do not have the staffing to assign six firefighters to RIT. We’ve also learned that firefighters must absolutely train and prepare for RIT operations. RIT training doesn’t always need to be a complex drill. Since maydays are not planned events, RIT drills shouldn’t always be planned either. Call a mayday during any company drill, regardless of the original topic, just be certain that all the instructors or safety officers are aware of the drill. When a company knows they have a RIT drill coming up they review RIT policies and practice RIT procedures to keep from performing poorly at the drill. Many departments hold annual RIT refresher training, but how are the crews being kept prepared the rest of the year? Calling a mayday during any random drill allows crews to react to the mayday in real time with their normal operations being are interrupted and without time to rehearse what to do.
If you operate short staffed then training also needs to take place with short staffed teams. How often is a training class broken into groups of five when the same firefighters operate in teams of two or three on the street? Does a volunteer department have fifteen or twenty firefighters show up for a weekend drill, then only have three or four respond to the mutual aid fire Tuesday afternoon? Department’s need to train like they are going to operate! If there will be only three firefighters assigned to the RIT then training must be done in teams of three!
A perfect of example of this happens in my own area’s recruit fire academy. While giving this class towards the end of the fire academy the recruits were asked, “When you took the state Mayday/RIT class how many people were in each of your squads?” The recruits answered, “five in each squad and one with six.” This came from a group where they know for sure they’re going to be operating with only three firefighters on RIT once they graduate. When we do not train like we are going to operate we are doing everyone on the fireground a disservice. It is better to be trained and know how to operate successfully with short staffed crews and have to adapt to operating with five or six members on the RIT then to be trained to operate with six firefighters on RIT and find yourself having to adapt to operating with only two or three.
RIT drills don’t always have to be a complex drill. The goal of any RIT training should be to challenge crews with as many different types of scenarios as you can create. Not every drill has to be an elaborate scenario with props and mazes. An example of a drill that often throws crews off is calling a mayday for a fall off the roof in the rear or for a firefighter hanging from a window in the rear. A lot of time is spent preparing for entanglements and collapses or performing specific drills, such as the Denver or Columbus Drill, and rightfully so, but many forget that there is a lot of other ways that firefighters can get into trouble on the fireground. Be sure that RIT training is giving students a “total package” that is performing size ups, making entry through different areas, searching for downed firefighters and removing them. Most important, be sure that RIT drills are keeping crews thinking, challenged, and on their toes. Make training challenging and different. How often do you connect the RIT pack to a down firefighter with your hood over your face piece? A lot of firefighters can connect the universal air connection (UAC) pretty fast on the truck bay floor with their hoods on backwards. But isn’t it more realistic to have the down firefighter under a bed with their SCBA against the wall? Now the firefighter making the connection has to lie on their stomach, reach under the bed and make the connection with limited space to work which is not only more challenging, but also more realistic than a down firefighter lying out in the open.
Train now, and train a lot to build your muscle memory of the simply things, like knot typing, harnesses, and air connections so when a fellow firefighter is in trouble you can focus on how you’re going to rescue them and not be focused on trying to remember simple, yet vital tasks like how to tie a harness.