It was a sunny warm morning around in July of 2001. One of those mornings, that it is great to live on the West Coast. Not too warm, however certainly shorts and beach weather. The crew of Engine 3 (E3) was out in their area conducting emergency vehicle operator training for one of their upcoming drivers. At around 10 AM the tones in the truck went off for a structure fire that would drastically change the course of the day and the departments operating procedures for years to come. As the crew listened to the call on the radio for the first alarm fire, Ladder 6, Engine 3, Quint 3, Engine 5, Duty Chief respond emergency, Structure Fire…, they could look up and see heavy smoke in the distance. The crew quickly went back to their regular positions on the apparatus and the driver started emergency to the scene.
The fire was in another firehall’s district. As such, the crew from E3 had to drive over a large bridge onto the island where the other fire district was located. As E3 and E5 (E5 coming from yet another district and over the same bridge) crossed the bridge, the bridge deck was obscured by smoke from the fire. Cars has slowed down to a near crawl in the thick smoke that engulfed the bridge like toxic fog. The crews looked out the window and saw fire already burning through the roof of the nearly 5-acre paper storage warehouse that was on fire.
Both E3 and E5 radioed this update to L6 who had just arrived on scene and taken command. The officer from L6 was into their 360 as E3 and E5 arrived on scene. E3 was tasked with catching a separate water source and hooking into the building sprinkler system and the E5 crew was split between RIT (Rapid Intervention Team) duties and interior attack. Once E3 completed the sprinkler hook up the E3 Captain and the two E3 firefighters reported to command (leaving the driver with the pump). By now two firefighters from L6 with the officer from E5 had entered the building. The two firefighters from E5, were assigned RIT duties and were situated next to the roll up door the attack team had entered through. This was in the inception days of RIT. Legislation had just been passed and RIT duties were still in their infancy. All Fire Department staff had completed training, and practical implementation had begun. As the E3 Captain reported to command, the two E3 firefighters stopped by the RIT team to provide a ribbing that they, as RIT, would be sitting this one out. On the fire floor no one likes to be “stuck” on RIT. Firefighters join the department to see action and watching others work while stuck on the yellow RIT tarp is seen as a let down. At least it was like that until this call occurred. It was around this time that the RIT team noticed that the 1 ½ hose the entry team had taken into the building with them had not moved in a few minutes. The RIT notified command and radio communication was attempted with the interior team. As the riders from E3 were there with the RIT team, command immediately created a four man RIT and asked them to take a look inside the building. As the RIT started to walk into the roll up door, the E5 Captain came out of a man door further down the Alpha Side of the building. He was missing his helmet, a boot and his jacket was torn open. He muttered out “Collapse, they are trapped”. Command then formally dispatched the RIT team in to find the trapped firefighters, updated the Duty Chief and called for additional resources.
The RIT entered the structure following the hose line of the entry team. They only made it in a hundred or so feet when they lost the line under piles of debris. The debris was predominately racking and paper products and was in a mound close to 20 feet high. Two firefighters, G and M1 were in the front digging by hand through the debris passing it back to the other two firefighters, S and M2 to clear out of the egress path. The visibility went from passable (the RIT could see each other within their 10 foot work area) to no visibility and back regularly as the air currents in the building and the PPV fan at the door moved the smoke and heat around. For those that fight fire you understand the engulfment in blackness that occurs as the black smoke blocks out all sources of light. The flashlight on the RIT teams helmets at times would not even penetrate it. Add to this blackness the sounds of debris falling and forklift propane tanks exploding. The sounds were different. Some of the paper stored in the warehouse was the minivan-sized rolls used in industrial processes, and of course not palleted. As the water from the broken sprinkler (the roof at this time had dropped in a section causing water to pour straight out of the sprinkler line onto the floor) soaked the bottom of these rolls they would fall over wiping out aisles of racking, other rolls and stacked product. This sound was a thud with additional crashing. When a propane tank exploded however it was a definite explosion. The floor would rock and the RIT could hear bits of shrapnel hitting steel and concrete. When the collapsing or exploding occurred the RIT would pause momentarily and uselessly look up at the ceiling or into the darkness beyond waiting to see if the next hit was on them.
Outside things were excited to say the least. Crews in halls that did not respond were pestering the Chief’s office to attend (while it may sound obvious not to do this as the Chief has enough to do, emotions start running high when its your team mates unaccounted for). Crews outside were deployed to the maximum and seeking assistance. At this point in the fire there was only a first alarm assignment on scene. 14 firefighters. Of which one was command, two were pump operators currently operating fire pumps, one was injured, two were missing, four were searching, two were performing fire control and the last two were conducting first aid and acting as the RIT to the RIT team. Full first alarm assignments from three surrounding fire departments were sent to assist as well as a general call back for the initiating fire department was enacted. This would put a total of 14 fire apparatus and associated staff (upwards of 80 firefighters) on scene, but it would take time. At this point the Duty Chief made what would become a controversial decision. He sounded the evacuation of the building.
It was a controversial decision, as firefighters will risk a lot for a savable life, even more so when those lives are their own. Many opinions came in about this evacuation call after the fact. Some opinion revolved around the idea that the Chief on scene should have been willing to risk more. That his training and experience were not up to the task. The other viewpoint was that the Chief was the “man on the ground” and as such had the best vantage point to make the decision. That he did use his training and experience, hence why he made the call. Throw emotion and type A personalities into the post incident analysis and it becomes almost a ballroom brawl. The take away however is that as a fire officer you require the training and the mental mindset that at some point in your career you will have to make a decision that will have a massive, negative effect on people on that scene. Whether that be to let a client’s home burn, triage patients and decide who is unsalvageable or remove your RIT from a compromised structure. As stated once about fire officer duties, you take the paycheck, feel free to do the job.
Inside the structure the RIT had no idea about the logistics in motion outside. While this may seem like hours, in reality this entire rescue took only 20 or so minutes. Not enough time to get mutual aid to attend, or multiple fire units to arrive. The RIT was digging, moving and searching in a chaotic environment inside the structure with debris falling. At times they had to shout to hear each other over the fire and collapsing materials. At times it was eerily quiet. There were always the screaming PASS alarms echoing through out the structure – until the batteries died (replace the batteries on your packs regularly – it may save your life). Tar was dripping onto their gear (the roof was compromised), however they were unaware of this, as they could not see the tar in the dark. Command could see this compromised structure from outside. Then the evacuation of the building was sounded. An announcement went out over the radio, the air horns and federal horns on the trucks were sounded. The RIT stopped and stared at each other. Evacuation. All of their minds raced. One of the firefighters eyes were like saucers in his mask – wide and concerned. If we leave can we find this area again? Will they let us back in? What happens to our mates? Are we abandoning them? One of the firefighters asked “Are we going?” and the response from another firefighter was “The only f*$king place I am going is to the bottom of this pile!”. A calm came over the RIT after this. No more looking uselessly into the air when explosions and falling racking rocked the ground. No more wide eyes. The decision was made. Live or die, the RIT was staying. While a calm came over the RIT, it was the opposite effect on the two trapped firefighters inside. Firefighter R was face down under 20 feet of debris. His nose was broken and his mask was full of blood. His back was also broken. He could not move. The evacuation siren was the last thing he remembers hearing until he came to in the Ambulance. Firefighter D was as mobile as one could be under a pile of debris. He took off his pack as it had run out of air (kids remember to turn off the PASS if you dump your packs – not that I am recommending pack dumping). He started trying to climb out. He was frantic – they were leaving him here and he was not interested in dying in this place.
The RIT continued their work at a frantic pace. They had removed close to 10 feet of debris by hand. And then they met firefighter D. He looked at one of the members with a cold, deliberate stare and said “Get me the f#$k out of here”. There was no emotion to his voice. He just wanted out. Two of the RIT escorted Firefighter D out while the remaining two RIT members continued their search. The RIT air packs had gone into low air alarm and since stopped vibrating. The members only had minutes of air left. It was looking increasingly desperate. At that moment the visibility cleared enough that one of the RIT noticed a hand sticking out of the debris. The remaining two RIT members, with their air packs now empty, took the regulators out of their masks, started breathing smoke and dug down into the debris. They dug out firefighter R, grabbed him from under the armpits and dragged him out of the building.
Shortly after the rescue the building started to collapse creating its own small firestorm in the process. Equipment was destroyed. A ladder truck was moved with a firefighter holding the override as it was still extended with outriggers out (raised a foot or so). The fight went on for another 27 hours until it was finally extinguished. The emotional toll took years. Some firefighters never returned to work, some firefighters retired, some had their whole attitude on life rearranged. No one died however. RIT proved itself to be a valuable asset on the fire ground. The attitude of “sucker, you’re RIT” changed to one of professionalism and responsibility. RIT was now a position not to take lightly. Incident commanders ensured that at least one member of RIT is a senior firefighter that knows the “ins and outs” of a fire ground.
Incident commanders should think about RIT as another tactic that is employed on the fire scene. Except this tactic is pre-planned. Imagine knowing where the fire was located and who was trapped prior to arriving on a scene. Imagine having a view of the area you will need to operate prior to the operation. The RIT does not have to imagine, the RIT has this ability. It needs to be created and then exploited if required by the IC. IC’s should utilize a senior firefighter at a minimum as the RIT Team Lead. It would be preferable to have an officer directly in charge of the RIT. The RIT team should not “rue this duty” of being “stuck on the tarp”. Equipment should be gathered for any potential rescue, a separate water line to a separate pump is preferable, a sketch of the building should be made and alternate means of entry/egress explored. The RIT should be able to identify where every attack and search team in the structure is located. Should the call come that an interior team is in trouble, the RIT should be able to deploy, immediately, to assist them. They should already have a feel for the structure and know the most direct entry and egress points to any team. They need to be prepared. Quite honestly, their teammate’s lives might depend on it.
Another point that was noted after this fire was communications. Not just radio comms on scene (that is always an issue it seems) however communications with the members on scene and the family at home. Imagine being on site, assigned to a pump panel, watching a medivac helicopter land, ambulances come and go and have no idea what has happened to your teammates. Imagine being the wife of a firefighter on duty sitting at home with their child listening to the radio as the breaking news of a massive fire with reports of firefighters missing and other firefighters being sent to the hospital hit the airwaves. And the fire is in your husband’s fire district. The Fire Service can learn from the Military regarding next of kin (NOK) notification. One advantage the military often has is the ability to lock down outside comms when an incident occurs. At a fire scene, the world shows up to watch. Every child with a cell phone can put a video up on You Tube. There is no ability to lock down these means of comms. At the time of this incident the department had no emergency contact forms for its firefighters. Staff were calling other staff who were friends of on duty members to get names and numbers of next of kin. Not an ideal situation, especially if the situation had turned out worse. Especially when you are trying to beat the 24-hour news media to reach the wife, husband, child, mother or father to tell them that their loved one is okay, however lying in a hospital bed. Create a quick next of kin form and keep it updated. Also be prepared for the onslaught of calls that will come into the department. The media will call, family members will call, off duty staff will call. Someone needs to be tasked to handle this communications traffic. None of these folks will take no for an answer.
And for the disclaimer. I attended this call. These are my memories. My mates may remember some of the small details differently. No one, myself included, is trying to “mislead” anyone. When “it” hits the fan and the adrenalin kicks in, the brain has a tendency to pick up on, focus on and remember different items, depending on the individual. Time slows, time flies, sometimes at once – those who have had these experiences understand this.