Thursday, May 2, 2013

Tactical Efficiency: RIC

       Tactical efficiency means getting the most accomplished, in a timely manner, with the personnel that you have on the fireground. As I've mentioned in previous posts, with the prevalence and abundance of synthetic fuels and lightweight construction, fighting fires in 2013 and beyond is, and will be, different than fighting fires in past generations. The enemy is more formidable and the battlefield is less forgiving...leading to firefighters having less time to accomplish their mission (life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation). These facts, in addition to many departments having limited staffing, lead to the fact that our tactics might also need to change. With the odds stacked against us from the beginning, we need to be smarter, faster, more proficient and more efficient on the fireground.

       Suburban and volunteer departments can't operate the same way that larger, urban departments can operate; and 85% of fire departments in the US are staffed with all volunteer, or mostly volunteer crews. The vast majority of the fire service doesn't have 30-40 personnel showing up on their first alarm, and many have 10 or less (including my department). That begs the extremely important question of how best to utilize the firefighters that you do have. With the fireground having so many different responsibilities that need to occur simultaneously (attack, search, ventilation, rescue, RIC, command, pumping, supply, etc.), this question can be particularly difficult to answer. All too often, in departments across the US, besides the pump operator and IC, the RIC is the only crew outside the IDLH. How can we efficiently utilize our RIC?

       Staffing and resources dictate tactics. That last sentence is important, so let me repeat that...staffing and resources dictate tactics! For a RIC (or whatever your departement calls it) to be efficient, they must think and act proactively, rather than reactively.We're all familiar with the old adage than 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure', and this is especially true with regards to RIC operations. The primary goal of the RIC should be to prevent a potential Mayday, while at the same time putting themselves in the best position to successfully mitigate an actual Mayday.

       We all konw that the RIC needs to be ready to deploy to save fellow firefighters at a moments notice, but that doesn't mean they have to post up on the sidewalk on the alpha-side of the structure, waiting for something bad to happen. This seems to be how too many fire departments utilize their RIC, but we have to ask ourselves, 'is there a better way to utilize our RIC on the fireground?'...especially when our operational clock is being reduced and our staffing is less than adequate.

       The RIC can, and should, work together to make the fireground as safe as possible for their brothers and sisters in the IDLH. We've all heard before that the RIC should be the most physically fit, knowledgeable and skilled members on scene...and I couldn't agree more. The RIC is tasked with saving firefighters...and this is no small chore. The RIC should be constantly looking and listening (continual size-up and monitoring the radio), constantly thinking ('what could go wrong?'), constantly planning (how can we prevent and/or solve problems when they arise) and constantly preparing (gathering tools and equipment for the worst case scenario). The duties of the RIC are numerous, and depending on the fireground priorities and staffing, might include:

       - Continuous 360-degree size-up (troops, enemy, battlefield and weaponry)
       - Throwing ladders (until the roof and all necessary windows are sufficiently covered, or until you run out of ladders)
       - Forcible entry/egress (without changing the ventilation profile)
       - Softening the structure (removing security bars and gates)
       - Enlarging previously made openings (making windows into doors)
       - Horizontal ventilation (if it's to your advantage, and it's coordinated with interior crews)
       - Getting a 2nd and/or a back-up/RIC-line into position
       - Controlling utilities
       - Locating and rescuing firefighters in need

       A continuous 360-degree size-up should be mandatory for the RIC. While on scene the RIC needs to mentally "diagram" the fire building and mitigate any hazards that might be obvious from the exterior. The RIC should know where all crews are operating and should be cognizant of the actions that crews are taking to control the enemy and the battlefield. The RIC should recognize if the actions of the interior crew are having the desired effect on the interior environment and attempt to anticipate any problems for the interior crews before they arise.

       Throwing ground ladders should be a given. Any time you have crews operating, or potential victims above grade, it is the duty of the exterior firefighters (in too many cases this means the RIC) to show their "Ladder Pride" by laddering as many rooms and sides (divisions) as possible. The RIC should be proficient with one-man (24', 28') and two-man (35') ladder throws, and should make sure the ladders are "self-heeled" to maximize crew efficiency. Throwing ladders, while a fundamental skill, is often overlooked.

       Forcible entry is often only thought about, and taught, in the context of initially getting the truck or engine companies into the building, but we should also be thinking about forcible egress. All exterior doors need to be defeated and controlled (so as not to change the ventilation profile) to allow interior crews to make a hasty exit if need be. This is especially true on commercial properties, which are often secured with multiple locks, and in zero-visibility this task can be extremely difficult for the interior crews.

       Softening the structure and enlarging pre-existing openings should go hand in hand with forcible entry/egress, since they all serve the same function...making egress for crews and potential victims easier.

       Controlling utilities is another often overlooked task, especially with limited staffing. Controlling utilities, once located, usually takes a couple of seconds, and can make that fireground much safer.

       Horizontal ventilation is another quick task (once in position) that can significantly increase the safety inside the IDLH (sounds like a paradox) when done in a coordinated manner with interior crews.

       Getting a 2nd line or back-up/RIC line into position is another task that, with practice, usually takes less than a minute, and again, can considerably increase the safety of the fireground.

       Loacating and rescuing firefighters in need...we'll talk about this in future blogs.

       Ideally, all of us would have enough personnel to accomplish the above tasks in a timely manner without the use of our RIC, but this is, unfortunately, not the case for too many of us. So, we have to be as efficient as we can with our crews. With so many potential tasks that might need to be accomplished by the RIC (and we haven't even touched on the RIC duties once a Mayday is called!), I think I made my case for the RIC being the most physically fit, knowledgeable and skilled members on scene.

       Changing from a reactive RIC, to a proactive RIC will oftentimes be met with resistance since it's a mindset that differs from what we've been taught...even the initial concept of a RIC was reactionary. This blog is designed to get you to think about different ways to make your crews work as efficiently, and as smart as possible. I'm not trying to rewrite your SOPs/SOGs, but I want you to think about your staffing and resources, and then ask yourself 'are we being as efficient with our crews as possible?' Like everything we do, these tactics and skills need to be practiced relentlessly, since these skills are as always, let's go get sweaty.

Monday, April 8, 2013

30 Years for 30 Seconds

Throughout your career there will undoubtedly be times when it’s hard to stay focused and on the top of your game. It’s easy to get complacent…too easy! Complacency starts out innocently enough; you’re tired, so you relax for a little while on the couch, and the couch feels sooo good…AND there’s a James Bond marathon on TV, so you consequently think to yourself…will it really matter if I take a day off? But complacency is cunning in its comfort; one day inevitably leads to another, and then another, and before you know it, you haven’t thrown a ladder or forced a door in over a month. Couple the effortlessness of complacency with the often-touted axiom that complacency is contagious, and it’s easy to understand why entire crews, shifts or even departments can be overwhelmed on a fireground. This happens at every firehouse, every day, across the fire service.

Where I work, we don’t catch a lot of fires…and we’re not alone; the majority of the fire service doesn’t respond to a lot of structural fires. Now “a lot” is a relative term, but most of us catch a handful or two a year, hardly enough to reach mastery. Although when the tones do drop, we’re expected, by our citizens, our chiefs and our crew to be as great at our job as the members of the FDNY or Detroit FD. The lack of working jobs can be frustrating; we all know this. No one among us wishes that someone’s house will catch fire tonight; but right or wrong, we often feel the need to be tested. Training and studying for a test that rarely comes can lead some to become apathetic to our craft, believing that their actions during their “down time” don’t matter. We have all seen numerous brothers and sisters that have an obvious lack of motivation for this craft: these are the brothers that spend more time napping or playing video games than studying; these are the sisters watching TV five minutes after truck checks are done; these are the Captains and Lieutenants that cancel training because it’s raining or snowing. Amotivation is regrettably becoming an epidemic across the fire service. A lack of motivation, when combined with its evil twin – complacency – can potentiate each other, and can lead to a recipe for disaster on the fireground.

Once (possibly twice…maybe even never) in your 30-year career you will be tested with the challenge to directly save another’s life. The actions that you take in as little as 30 seconds on the fireground will directly impact another’s life in the most primal, significant way possible, whether they will live or die. Will you be prepared? Will you possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to save their life? Will you know what to do, when to do it and how to do it without thinking, acting entirely on your training and instinct?

It's easy to answer yes to these questions; but in all honesty, how can someone possibly be ready for any contingency the fireground might through at them, especially when the dynamic, unpredictable nature of the fireground is compounded with the fact that fireground experience throughout most of the American fire service is getting harder to come by? The cruel truth is that we can't...but we have to try. We have to strive to constantly improve ourselves, but more importantly (and oftentimes much more difficult to achieve), we have to WANT to improve ourselves every single day. 

“So wait a minute…are you saying that we need to prepare every day, for 30 years, for something that might take as little as 30 seconds, or might never even happen?”

Damn right I am! We have to aggressively fight complacency and amotivation like it’s the fire of our career...every single day. There is no denying that this job is demanding, strenuous and often thankless. No one ever told you that this job was going to be easy. But how does one have the motivation to work their hardest, every day, for an entire career?

Knowing that the actions that you take today, and every day, will impact someone’s life in such a powerful way is the best motivation in the world. On the fireground, one person can change the universe of another. Our actions, both on the fireground and during our “down time” DO matter. Sometimes it may be difficult to see the truth in this statement; especially when it’s been a while since your last job, but everything you do matters, just ask someone who survived a fire. What more motivation does someone need than knowing that they will be responsible for another’s life? Isn’t that the reason you’re a firefighter in the first place? Isn’t that also the reason that you’re reading this article right now? Don’t forget why you got onto the job in the first place…it might be the same reason that you get into this job now.

Now go get sweaty.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Call to Arms

            We are all aware that for the past couple of decades, our enemy has been getting bigger, faster and more deadly. This has hopefully led you to the realization that we now have less time on the fireground to accomplish all of our critical tasks. But before we get into the meat and potatoes of this article, let’s look at the basics of the above premise. The two biggest reasons that the fireground has changed so much in the last generation or so, are that the fuels have changed, and so have the construction materials and methods. The fact that our fuels are continuously evolving means that our fires are as well. In addition to our enemy evolving and become more dangerous, our buildings are also changing and becoming more hazardous for firefighters. I won’t infantilize you with all the boring details, but I think the Cliff’s Notes are essential for a full understanding of this topic, so bear with me.

            Let’s first take a little closer look at how our fuels have changed. Yesteryears fuels were mainly natural and consisted of a lot of wood, wool, cotton, silk, etc. With our increased ability to make synthetic materials, most rooms that you might find yourself in today consist of numerous petroleum based products, or hydrocarbons, and its ubiquitous derivative - plastic. Plastics are everywhere…seriously, look at the room you’re in right now: computers, TV’s, kid’s toys and even the chair you’re sitting on - all plastic. In the fire service, these petroleum derivatives are widely referred to as solid-state gasoline, and for good reason. These synthetic materials produce heat release rates (HRR) that are much higher than the natural materials of yesteryear. Let’s not forget that not only are the fuels different, but we also have a lot more “stuff” in our houses today than we did when we were growing up. Again, take a look at the room you’re in right now. So what does all this mean, plain and simple, it means that today’s fires produce more energy, faster, which leads to more rapid fire growth and faster times to flashover.

If fire is our enemy, that makes the building our battlefield. Building construction prior to the 1980’s utilized dimensional lumber held together by nails for the structural members. Most of the buildings that are being built all across America right now are cheaper and lighter than the buildings of past generations. Modern construction is dependent on lightweight truss roofs and floors composed of engineered lumber that are often held together by gusset plates and glue. Lightweight truss roofs and flooring systems are dangerous because of the decrease in mass of the structural members, since mass resists heat; but also because of how the materials react to heat and flame impingement. The materials tend to fail with heat and flame much faster than our father’s dimensional lumber, and they fail catastrophically. That means that when a part of the roof or floor fails, the entire roof or floor will collapse at once.

So with the knowledge that today’s fires are getting much bigger, much faster; combined with the fact that our buildings are failing catastrophically and much faster, this leads to the obvious conclusion that we now have less time to operate in, and on, these structures. This then begs the logical question: “How must we change our approach?” Recognizing and clearly defining the problem is the crucial first step. The answer as I see it, is that we all (literally all of us!) have to be smarter, faster and safer on the fireground. If our enemy and our battlefield are less forgiving, then we have to be that much better at our chosen trade.

That might mean using different strategies, tactics and tasks than we might have done thirty years ago. Slow down…I am not advocating moving away from our history of aggressive firefighting, quite the contrary, it’s in our blood; but I’m also not advocating arbitrary recklessness. I am advocating intelligent aggressiveness. We need to expand our strategies beyond simply going offensive or defensive. We have to be experts at building construction, students of fire behavior and artists at reading smoke to anticipate how our enemy and battlefield are plotting together to kill us. That means that if command wants the lid opened up, then we have to be faster and more efficient with our actions. That means that we need to be better in our searches and more competent at victim removal techniques. It’s crucial that we become great at forcible entry, no matter how fortified the objective. We need to be quick at establishing a supply and smooth making the fire. Our RIT/FAST need to be properly trained and positioned to rapidly rescue our brothers and sisters. That means that all our actions need to be coordinated with the other operating companies. That means being professionals and knowing how all of our actions on the fireground can impact the fire, the building and the other companies operating in, on and around the structure.

I’m going to need to borrow a soapbox for this next part.

The only way to make this all happen is to train more, and train intelligently. That means getting sweaty at every opportunity, and that means every single day we’re working fellas. There is no excuse for not drilling while on shift…none. We need to know all of our equipment backwards and forwards. We need to train with the other companies that we’ll be in combat with, so that we’re all on the same page, and we all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s essential to have to attack, search, ventilation and RIT train together, but too often we don’t. We have a horrible habit of training on one task at a time, one firefighter at a time, and oftentimes not in proper PPE…how realistic is that? That’s the football equivalent of the quarterback, receivers, running backs and offensive linemen all practicing separately, and without pads or a helmet. It’s just plain stupid, and moments after kickoff everyone will know they’re not prepared like they should be (I’m looking at you Chiefs).

There is no denying that this job is physically demanding, and we need to be up to the task when called upon. We are all aware of the leading cause of firefighter LODD’s and we can no longer avoid talking about the 800 pound gorilla in the room, we all need to get in shape, period. We need to train and workout in our PPE and on air. It’s vital that every one of us know about how long our SCBA bottle will last us, and the rest of our company. We have to acknowledge and accept the fact that we’re occupational athletes, and approach the job with that attitude. How good would Adrian Peterson be if he hadn’t stepped foot in a gym in years?

That means that we should be reading like we’re English lit. majors. We should be reading anything that we can get our hands on. There are so many resources out there today that we need to be taking advantage of: books, magazines, manuals, SOP’s/SOG’s, blogs, etc. We should all be attending classes and conferences whenever we can. We should be testing ourselves daily and always be looking for ways to be smarter, faster and safer on the fireground. That means constantly looking for new information, watching fireground videos and asking our leaders and mentors questions, always with the goal of becoming great at our trade.

I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but we need to get into the job. We need to get sweaty. We need to get dirty. We need to read and get nerdy. We need to constantly strive to pass along any nugget of knowledge that we posses, however small it may be, to others. Hopefully our actions will lead others into finding, or rediscovering, their passion for this calling. We owe it to our brothers and sisters, families and communities to make sure that we’re up to the challenge. Now let’s get sweaty.