Thinking your three or four member rapid intervention team will suffice when combating a fire in an ordinary construction group of attached structures can be compared to “fool’s gold".
Alan Dugan of the Grandview, Missouri fire department went to work on October 5th, 2015 like most of us do in our respective communities, but within the first few hours of his shift the unexpected occurred when his department located just outside of Kansas City responded to a fire in a downtown building with reported civilians trapped. Alan was trapped for almost three minutes and was very close to being a fire ground fatality fortunately however a quick thinking aerial operator was able to rescue the man they call “Bull” around the fire house.
We will get back to the story of Alan Dugan but first let’s look at how most smaller departments handle R.I.T. on a typical residential fire and compare that versus a three story legacy constructed building, Chief Anthony Avillo has stated many times that fires in continuous structures can be a “manpower sponge” so that said; it’s pretty obvious that a working fire in a commercial building especially in let’s say occurring the middle of a block that has the potential to spread will have possibly double the firefighters on scene compared to the residential. Also, when looking at this from the small to mid-size department standpoint a number of different fire departments could be on scene, so how are the two (residential vs. commercial) different?
The Building Layout is DIFFERENT
The layout of most residential structures are pretty straight forward and a four member R.I.T. provides a good start and under normal circumstances these crews can do allot to soften the building prior to an event such as throwing ladders, lighting, etc. completely around the structure, now try to get these crews from the A side of your “Main Street” to the C side and there can be a ton of obstacles. We work in a world of the residential house fire and when confronted with the commercial fire the “square peg in the round hole” approach to R.I.T. can certainly trap us and give a false sense of security to command officers. This article is strictly a primer and not intended to be a rapid intervention procedure guide, many articles and periodicals exist on the subject but few focus on the commercial building and the nuances these legacy buildings present to those who must rescue our own. A leader of a R.I.T. must have a fundamental understanding of Type III construction, fire spread potential in these buildings can be rapid and go just about anywhere, as can collapse. The engaged R.I.T. officer will be well ahead of the curve and possess the same pessimistic mindset that also must be shared by command, in a residential fire we are dealing with a single structure, the R.I.T. boss on Main Street may have a serious fire vacant store front with occupied apartments above extending to a furniture store, each with possibly dozens of firefighters inside both! Just think about one major difference, room sizes…the room size of a residential dwelling is most likely going to be smaller than the apartment or first floor of an ordinary construction building plus the ability to control doors may be substantially reduced in a legacy ordinary Type III as many revitalizations in today’s buildings go for the “loft” or open area atmosphere. Go look at an old episode of the T.V. show friends (hey my kids watch the reruns, not me) to get an idea of the open layout of an apartment above a store front example.
As with any fire, the hazards we face and may need to be rescued from by our own can be in the hundreds but let’s narrow down to some common hazards that the R.I.T. may have to respond to on Main Street, I reviewed data from the National Fire Protection Agency’s 2014 firefighter fatality report as a start, in 2014 as with most years stress and exertion/medical was top at 58% if we exclude crashes and focus totally on the fire ground the top four after exertion/stress were in order:
1) Rapid Fire Progression 8%
2) Lost/Disorientation inside 5%
3) Falls 5%
4) Structural Collapse 3%
When dealing with this specific killer, a R.I.T. crew activated for a medical event may be faced with moving a firefighter up from a commercial basement set of stairs, or down from very constricted hallways or stairs from upper floors two very distinct features of “Main Street” buildings compared to the residential scene. One other location not always considered on the residential is an emergency on the roof, because of the legacy construction of these buildings roof operations are usually needed and a common area of work during a fire, but how would you as a R.I.T. go to work if a firefighter goes down on the roof with a stroke or heart attack? Are you prepared to get the proper litter to the roof? If only an aerial is on scene are you able to safely get that member down? Many questions with certainly many answers the key is to be prepared and review, training on firefighter removal down a ladder whether an aerial or ground is one sometimes placed on the backburner with all the other items we need to be proficient on. Also, many “C” sides of Main Street buildings will have large electric transmission lines normally not found in the residential setting up the potential of electrocution. Just the very nature of the construction elements in commercials tell us these fires will be a much tougher fight, when was the last time you or your crews pulled a tin ceiling? Or tried to pull down multiple ceilings with a 8 or 10 foot hook? This one tactic puts an incredible strain on the body, even the most physically fit members will tire easily pulling and opening up in Ordinary Construction.
“Negative Command, I can’t do it, have stuff all over the line and I am disoriented on I, please send help”. These unfortunately were the last words recorded via radio from Bryan, Texas Lt. Eric Wallace who died in a commercial building fire on February 15, 2013. We have all had that moment of disorientation in a residential house fire but how about a cluttered commercial basement or large studio apartment located on the second or third floor of a downtown building? As a R.I.T. crew what is your plan to transverse through uncommonly found obstacles to get to fellow firefigther(s)? Does your R.I.T. bag rope have knots pre-tied to indicate distance transversed, i.e. In order to identify the direction and distance to, and distance from, the tie off point, a series of knots can be tied onto the rope, with 25 ft. intervals between each knot. A single knot is at 25 ft., two knots for 50 ft., three knots for 75 ft., and progressing to seven knots at 175 ft. Air supply will become an issue and getting air to a firefigther will be a possible scenario, what about two firefighters or more needing air? These fires as stated earlier in smaller towns will amass a large contingent of firefighters from several departments, as a R.I.T. are your crews adapt at getting air to different brands of SCBAs? All of these questions can be supposed of prior to the Main Street fire.
The legacy fire safety item of exterior fire escapes will not be found on the residential dwelling but will most likely be located on a Type III multi story building, a proactive R.I.T. can illuminate the building and scan fire escapes for any hazards hopefully prior to members using them, especially if they have to use them as an emergency egress or evacuation. When illuminating the building try to focus also on parapet walls, and cornices, the duties of R.I.T certainly will cross over to those duties of the safety officer but most small departments at least from what I have observed assign R.I.T. prior to the assignment of a safety officer so the more eyes on the building with the sole emphasis on safety and the “what if” the better. Many of these Type III buildings have abandoned shafts and chutes that will be foreign to many firefighters especially new ones, don’t assume all your firefighters will know or remember the old tip of doors swinging out in a public hall could be a gateway to a shaft of some sort as one example. If the unthinkable happens a three or four member team will be quite challenged getting to a downed firefighter in a shaft.
Structural Collapse and Floor Heights
In my opinion, we as a fire service have done a great job in education and recognition of today’s pre-engineered construction and the inherent structural hazards of the Type II non-combustible building but when it comes to a Type III collapse many firefighters are still encountering near misses and worse when a Type III building collapses, the most recent being the tragic line of duty death which took place in October 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri. A structural collapse on the fire ground has to be the most difficult to control both from an accountability stand point and rescue, in my research and experience collapse of these Type III buildings occur mostly with the parapet and outside walls, a R.I.T. can again keep a keen eye on the building prior to the event focusing on cracks, smoke and water seeping through walls, etc. One thing we usually do not time or measure on the fire ground is the amount of water used, it can be a totally neglected safety issue as far as pouring hundreds of gallons of water on top, in around a building and then send troops in to finish up. Most deadly collapses have occurred during the overhaul stage, a prime example is the 1972 fire which occurred in Boston at the Hotel Vendome which claimed the lives of nine firefighters.
Another item to remember especially when faced with a firefighter through the floor scenario is in a residential basement the height from floor to ceiling is much smaller compared to a legacy Type III, for example when a firefighter falls through the floor of a residential many times a short jack or attic ladder can be lowered to the fallen, a commercial basement may have a depth of 12 feet from ground to first floor. You don’t want to waste time and energy running back and forth grabbing the wrong ladder, if firefighters aren’t cognizant of construction features such as floor heights they will revert back to what they know and most departments practice the firefighter through the residential floor scenario 2-1 I am going to bet. Prepare your members prior with these subtle differences, point them out on inspections and company walk-throughs.
A R.I.T. line? Really?
I have reviewed many departments’ guidelines and procedures on R.I.T. and few if any discuss the use of a separate line to be utilized for the R.I.T., in the after action report on the Bryan, Texas LODDs mentioned here earlier, the use of a R.I.T. hoseline is mentioned as a new standard to be adopted in the department. Think about it, a collapse occurs or rapid fire event happens and traps firefighters wouldn’t an already deployed, charged hoseline be the fastest method of getting water on the fire with the hope of keeping it off the trapped firefighters? A no brainer for sure in my opinion and one a R.I.T. should have at the ready during a working commercial fire on Main Street or any construction type actually. Here is a video of my mentor Chief Jerry Tracy describing the use of a R.I.T. line can be reviewed here...Tracy Video
Chief Officer Positions and Communications
A good commander will get Chief Officers in position at a “Main Street” fire, I recently was teaching a class on Type III firefighting and we spent a great deal of time debating the use of company officers as sector bosses, remember a company officer day in and day out especially in a smaller suburban setting paid or volunteer is strictly focused on commanding/overseeing two or three members when we ask him/her to oversee an entire area we cannot be guaranteed they have had the training or focus to “see the entire picture” i.e. collapse issues, smoke, fire spread, accountability, etc. the same may be considered for R.I.T. at a large event. You definitely want to add a Chief level officer to oversee R.I.T., just as you would to the roof, interior, exposures, etc. Remember also that the larger the building, the more likely communications will increase, more communications means more chances for it failing or causing an issue when a MAYDAY occurs. The more command can de-centralize the safer the entire event. One of the lessons learned from the near miss in Grandview, Missouri which was noted in their After-Action Review was that some crews missed radio transmissions on scene. After the May Day had been called there were more people on the Mayday frequency other than Command and the Captain calling the Mayday also, with multiple jurisdictions communications didn’t flow as well due to non-compatible radio frequencies, if you have communication issues with neighboring departments stop moaning about it and put a plan in place.
A well-noted multiple LODD from New Jersey in which multiple agencies responded without the ability to communicate can be found at this link for research and learning
One block, two sides, two R.I.T.s
“Command, we have a firefighter in trouble on the C side need R.I.T. deployed now!” words you do not want to hear but if you do, think about the logistics and time it would take to get the R.I.T. from the A side where we most likely stage our R.I.T. to the C, most legacy constructed “Main Streets” have alleys to the rear and we most certainly will have companies operating on the C to begin with so think about doubling your R.I.T. and have a team staged on the C side as well as the A.
Hey, we are an engine…you want us to set up the aerial?
Most smaller departments do not have full time positions on their truck companies, some mutual aid companies you work with may not even have an aerial, but what do you do if you need R.I.T. to set up the aerial to get a firefighter out of a third floor window? The answer comes from cross training all firefighters in the use of your department’s aerial apparatus, conduct training days with your mutual aid departments to review each other’s’ equipment and apparatus, as a Chief do you want to explain to a widow or injured firefighter why you couldn’t get the aerial to them in time?
Ladder Throws and Bail Outs
Ladder use in ordinary Type III buildings has become a forgotten art, throwing a ladder in a narrow alley vs. the typical suburban residential dwelling requires different techniques, when was the last time you practiced throwing ladders and moving around fire escape balconies, power lines, lights, etc. Many departments have protected their members by providing some type of bail out kit where the member in an emergency has to utilize a rope system to bail out of an upper story. Without a doubt, these can and have been life savers but if your department has them find a commercial building and practice bailing out of a Type III window that is on a third or fourth floor. The residential bail while not diminishing the danger or importance of learning is a different animal with in my opinion more allowance for error. The Type III that is three stories in the front and four in the rear, not so much. The advantage of having R.I.T.s on both sides allows for multiple ladders to be thrown in a much more expedient manner also. My department still carries a Bangor ladder due to alleys and the sizes of many of our ordinary constructed buildings. In fact many years ago two firefighters were saved utilizing such a ladder in a narrow alley in my town (see photo).
Now Back to the “Bull”
On the morning of October 5th, 2015, companies were dispatched to a large fire at Main Street and Grandview Road in Grandview, Missouri. It was reported that there were people trapped inside, possibly as many as four. Two story building with retail businesses on the first floor and seven residential apartments on the second floor, at 0958 Captain Dugan aka “Bull” crew arrived and began immediate search operations, police officers had already removed one trapped occupant but more were reported in side at 1003 hours a ceiling collapse occurred on the second floor trapping Captain Dugan, he radioed a MAYDAY and he was successfully rescued, his rescue was recorded by a citizen and this video went viral showing his aerial apparatus operator climbing the ladder to rescue him. It was a successful outcome to a possible tragedy, a well thought out R.I.T. and understanding that the residential R.I.T. is not the same as the commercial Main Street R.I.T. may indeed help you someday.