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R.I.T. Training -- the most fun you can have on your hands and knees (in gear)

By Andrew Pollack on 09/09/2004 at 01:34 AM EDT
Its amazing really. Just a couple of years ago I wrote this description of my first time in a live fire. I've put in hundreds of hours of training and calls since then, in the meantime getting certified to drive the Ladder and Heavy Rescue trucks along with our Engine, training for and joining the Special Operations teams for vehicle extrication, hazardous materials, confined space rescue, low angle rope rescue, and ice water rescue. Somewhere along the way I've dropped nearly 30 pounds and find myself in better shape and health than I've been since high school, and stronger than I believe I ever have been. Now I'm working at joining our department's R.I.T.

The Rapid Intervention Team may be the most challenging of all the training I've done so far. This team stands by at a fire scene for nearby towns to provide emergency response to down firefighters inside a burning building. This happens through automatic joint response agreements. They send their RIT to our fires, and we send our RIT to theirs. To understand what this really means, you have to picture the scenario you're training for. In an already dangerous situation, something has gone wrong. It could be as simple as someone falling down nowhere near the actual fire itself, but more often its going to be a serious incident in a very unstable location. Maybe a ladder crew member has gone through the roof. Maybe someone on the search team got separated and is lost or trapped. Maybe a partial collapse has pinned someone. Maybe someone has just collapsed from the heat and stress of working hard in a dark noisy place with an ambient temperature measured in hundreds of degrees. If you're on the R.I.T., your job is to go in and find the downed man or men and get them out or begin the process of getting them out.

Tonight's training was "practical" drills. We used the training site in the next town over -- an old three story residential structure next to a town dump that's been boarded up, gutted, and put to use. After some last minute review, we practiced. There were four of us taking the training, and three current members leading the class. All of us in gear, one of the instructors went and acted as the patient. The four trainees were to go in, find the downed man, contact "command", switch the regulator on the downed man's face mask with one attached to the bottle we've brought with us, and bring him out. Easy, right? Oh, and for the training, we were all blindfolded.

Training with blindfolds (actually done by putting your gnomex hood on backwards over your face mask) changes everything. Its to prepare you to work in noisy, dark, and otherwise sub-optimal conditions. It teaches to think about things you normally would not. Four people cannot simply walk blindfolded into a building and find someone to bring them out. You have to crawl. You have to push an axe along the floor in front of you if you're leading, to be sure you're not crawling into a hole in the floor. You have to keep one hand on the boot of the guy ahead, and make sure the guy behind you has his hand on your boot. You've got to pay out rope to find your way back out. When you do find the patient, you've got to assess them, unbury them (which may involve a reciprocating saw or air-bag lifting system) change their regulator, hook up a drag system (which can be done in many different ways) and of course bring them out safely. You do this despite the fact that a fire is loud, your breathing is loud in your ears, and you can barely hear the guy next to you let alone the other two. Of course, the instructors like to make things challenging. That means selecting one of the larger guys to play patient, putting a couch in the way of the entrance to the room, and burying the downed man in furniture. Did I mention the blindfolds?

Training for this is great fun -- it really only gets scary when you stop to think about why you're doing this training.

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