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Flashpoint: February 2011


February 8, 2011
By Peter Sells

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"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Robert A. Heinlein, the late science fiction author, put those words into the mouth of Lazarus Long, his 2,000-year-old everyman, in the 1973 novel Time Enough for Love. It’s been about 35 years since I’ve read that book, but the quote, or at least the last line, has stayed with me. Looking it up just now, it struck me how many of Heinlein’s task examples are relevant to firefighters.

I’ve been thinking about the topic of this column for some time, and it has sparked some spirited discussion in some of the classes I have taught in recent months. A very intense media spotlight was focused on the fire service in early January when two Toronto firefighters, who were aggressively protecting a downtown exposure, fell from the roof of a neighbouring building into a partially collapsed burning structure, for which the strategy had already been declared defensive. The mayday calls and subsequent RIT deployment were successful in removing the two injured firefighters from harm’s way. Rather than providing a debriefing or critique of that day, I would like to explore the philosophy, methodology and purpose of rapid intervention operations at mayday incidents.

First, here’s a definition, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Firefighters (historically, firemen) are rescuers extensively trained primarily to put out hazardous fires that threaten civilian populations and property, to rescue people from car incidents, collapsed and burning buildings and other such situations.”

Although the academic world frowns on Wikipedia as a source, this is not an academic paper. It seems obvious that firefighters are rescuers extensively trained to rescue people from collapsed and burning buildings, so let’s accept that as the premise for the rest of this column.

Next, let’s agree that a mayday situation is one in which one or more firefighters are lost, trapped, injured or otherwise not able to make their way to safety without aid from others. Logically, would that not include the mayday firefighters as people requiring rescue from collapsed or burning buildings? That being the case, the definition of firefighter given above would implicitly include the ability to rescue co-workers who had found themselves in a mayday situation.

Looking at this from the opposite direction, rapid intervention teams are pairs or crews of firefighters who are dedicated on the fire ground to the purpose of search and rescue of mayday firefighters, and who have been trained and equipped accordingly. Since those mayday firefighters are people requiring rescue, being part of a rapid intervention team would appear to fall within the scope of every firefighter’s skill set. To be an extensively trained rescuer would necessarily include the ability to perform as a member of a rapid intervention team.

Rapid intervention should not be a specialty for elite teams only; it must be integrated into the training of all firefighters. We need to start looking at rapid intervention as a standard function of operating in a hazard zone. Further, all officers on the fire ground who are managing tactical operations (i.e., all sector officers) must have the resources (people and equipment) at hand to deploy a rapid intervention team in their sector at all times. I will refer you to my November 2009 FlashPoint column for a description of the on deck deployment model developed by the Phoenix Fire Department as an excellent way of ensuring this response capability.

With regards to mayday, the only substantial difference between rescuing little Johnny trapped in his bedroom and rescuing firefighter Johnny trapped under the basement stairs is that firefighter Johnny is equipped with bunker gear and SCBA, giving him a survivability factor in conditions that would otherwise be untenable. As a result, if firefighter Johnny gets himself into a difficult situation, his team members must also face it in order to get him out. The “risk a lot to save savable lives” meter has swung way into the red zone. However, the same command and control protocols that were in place before the mayday call should still be in place. If anything, a higher degree of fire ground accountability and entry control discipline may be needed. To quote Alan Brunacini, “A mayday will go the same way as tactical operations were going before the call. If operations were under control, then the mayday has a good chance of working out well. If there was a lack of control before the mayday, it may turn out badly.”

Bad things are going to happen on the fire ground, despite our best efforts, but you should be able to manage your team out of a mayday situation with the same systems that were in place when it happened. If you can’t, and you are scrambling to gain control, losing precious seconds in the process, then you were not in control to begin with.


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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