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Flashpoint: November 2009

The Danes were renowned for a thousand years as shipbuilders, mariners and warriors on the sea. They maintained the independence of their small country throughout centuries of European power struggles by sustaining a strong naval defense.

November 6, 2009
By Peter Sells

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The Danes were renowned for a thousand years as shipbuilders, mariners and warriors on the sea. They maintained the independence of their small country throughout centuries of European power struggles by sustaining a strong naval defense. So when the British turned their attention toward Copenhagen, and, over the course of six years, devastated the Danish fleet, the situation required strong action.

Ships of that era were made of oak and the Danish forests were down to historically low levels so  King Christian VIII issued decrees that resulted in the planting of thousands of oak trees. That was in 1807 and the trees are ready now. It was a good idea at the time. How could you fault the king for his vision? He recognized that the situation was not sustainable and took long-term strategic action to correct it. The only problem was that before the fruits of his actions could be realized, oak was irrelevant as a military resource.

Just as making warships from oak was recognized as a necessary and sensible standard practice, as firefighters we have developed procedures for our own defense. One of the most prominent examples of this was the emergence of Rapid Intervention Teams (I will use RIT, with all due respect to the RIC and FAST people out there). The theory was simple – we would train and equip firefighters to stand by outside the hazard zone to be ready to respond in case of a mayday. It was a solid and sensible strategy that found its way into industry standards. One fire service that implemented RIT procedures, including (as it is known for doing) proper training and equipment, was the Phoenix Fire Department. Then came the fire in the Southwest Supermarket on March 14, 2001, which claimed the life of firefighter Brett Tarver.

There are many lessons from that incident, but the one I will point out is that the RIT and mayday procedures executed that day took much longer, involved more people and were more inherently hazardous than anyone imagined. The PFD did a review of its procedures the following year, including conducting literally thousands of mayday drills. Problems were identified and the department implemented substantial changes, including the replacement of dedicated RIT personnel with on-deck crews under the control of sector officers. This was much more than a change in terminology.

On-deck crews are assigned as a resource to the sector officer. In addition to being trained and equipped for mayday response, the on-deck crews are available to cycle into the sector as previously assigned crews come out. At that time, another crew takes the on-deck position. Between the assigned resources, on-deck crews and crews with their apparatus at staging areas, PFD created a three-deep system of resource management to ensure that a tactical reserve is maintained.

In 2006, PFD repeated its drills using its new procedures. The results were dramatic and seem to justify the changes. In the 2002 drills, it took an average of 12 firefighters 11 minutes to find a mayday firefighter and a total of 21 minutes to complete the rescue. In 2006, it took an average of nine firefighters four minutes to find, and just over 12 minutes to rescue, a mayday firefighter. One of every five firefighters participating in the first study ended up getting lost and declaring his own mayday. This was reduced to one in 100 in the second study. In 2002, 60 per cent of the mayday firefighters ran out of air, compared to zero per cent in 2006.

Of course, regardless of how carefully a study is planned, it is still a study. I spoke with Brian Kazmierzak, division chief of training and safety for the Clay Fire Territory in South Bend, Ind. Clay Fire implemented on-deck procedures several years ago. Kazmierzak, a former RIT instructor, maintains that even a small department like Clay Fire can benefit from this change in tactical deployment. Whereas establishing a RIT would typically have taken 20 minutes, on-deck crews can be in place as the incident organization is built.

Clay Fire hosted a recent Blue Card Incident Command instructor certification course. Echoing Kazmierzak’s comments, several of my classmates whose departments have gone with on-deck feel that it is faster and simpler. Hard-and-fast procedures like having the third-arriving pumper crew automatically assigned to RIT duties can handcuff the initial incident commander. (Anecdotally, I was told that it sometimes seemed that some personnel were reluctant to be third in.  Why be assigned RIT and have a ringside seat at the fire, instead of going on deck and being guaranteed to be the next ones in?). Putting those resources to work early can reduce the hazards at hand and mitigate the need for a RIT. 

So I know what you are thinking – what became of the oak trees? Well, today they are referred to as fleet oak, or flådeege in Danish. They are now used on deck for building luxury yachts and for high-end flooring. So don’t throw away your RIT kits. You can use them when you are on deck.


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor.


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