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New teams safeguard firefighters in harm’s way

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Probationary Firefighter Allen Baker negotiates a simulated drop ceiling collapse, one that would bring down ducts and wires onto a firefighter, during a drill at the Greenfield Fire Station run by Captain Kyle Phelps and Chief Michael Winn.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Probationary Firefighter Allen Baker negotiates a simulated drop ceiling collapse, one that would bring down ducts and wires onto a firefighter, during a drill at the Greenfield Fire Station run by Captain Kyle Phelps and Chief Michael Winn.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Probationary Firefighter Allen Baker negotiates a simulated drop ceiling collapse, one that would bring down ducts and wires onto a firefighter, during a drill at the Greenfield Fire Station run by Captain Kyle Phelps and Chief Michael Winn.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Probationary Firefighter Allen Baker negotiates a simulated drop ceiling collapse, one that would bring down ducts and wires onto a firefighter, during a drill at the Greenfield Fire Station run by Captain Kyle Phelps and Chief Michael Winn.

  • Paul Harris, left, who is the manager for marriage licenses for Clark County, wipes away a tear as he and his partner of 39-years James Griener, speak to the media after being the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in the county at the Clark County Auditor's Office in Vancouver, Wash., on Thursday Dec.  6, 2012. Washington state now joins several other states that allow gay and lesbian couples to wed. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a voter-approved law legalizing gay marriage. Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday.  (AP Photo/The Columbian, Zachary Kaufman)

    Paul Harris, left, who is the manager for marriage licenses for Clark County, wipes away a tear as he and his partner of 39-years James Griener, speak to the media after being the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in the county at the Clark County Auditor's Office in Vancouver, Wash., on Thursday Dec. 6, 2012. Washington state now joins several other states that allow gay and lesbian couples to wed. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a voter-approved law legalizing gay marriage. Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday. (AP Photo/The Columbian, Zachary Kaufman)

  • In this photo provided by Richard Wood, retired Army Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, left, kisses Diane Divelbess, her partner of 24 years, as they pose for photos after the two received their marriage license Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in Coupeville, Wash. Two retired military women who fought for the rights of gays in the military were among the hundreds of couples who received their marriage licenses this week as Washington state's voter-approved law allowing same-sex marriage took effect. Former Air Force flight nurse Maj. Margaret Witt, of Spokane, and Cammermeyer, of Whidbey Island, both successfully challenged the military's ban on open service by gays and lesbians. They were first in line on Thursday in their home counties to receive their licenses with their partners as the law took effect. (AP Photo/ kapchur.us photography, Richard Wood)

    In this photo provided by Richard Wood, retired Army Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, left, kisses Diane Divelbess, her partner of 24 years, as they pose for photos after the two received their marriage license Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in Coupeville, Wash. Two retired military women who fought for the rights of gays in the military were among the hundreds of couples who received their marriage licenses this week as Washington state's voter-approved law allowing same-sex marriage took effect. Former Air Force flight nurse Maj. Margaret Witt, of Spokane, and Cammermeyer, of Whidbey Island, both successfully challenged the military's ban on open service by gays and lesbians. They were first in line on Thursday in their home counties to receive their licenses with their partners as the law took effect. (AP Photo/ kapchur.us photography, Richard Wood)

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Probationary Firefighter Allen Baker negotiates a simulated drop ceiling collapse, one that would bring down ducts and wires onto a firefighter, during a drill at the Greenfield Fire Station run by Captain Kyle Phelps and Chief Michael Winn.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Probationary Firefighter Allen Baker negotiates a simulated drop ceiling collapse, one that would bring down ducts and wires onto a firefighter, during a drill at the Greenfield Fire Station run by Captain Kyle Phelps and Chief Michael Winn.
  • Paul Harris, left, who is the manager for marriage licenses for Clark County, wipes away a tear as he and his partner of 39-years James Griener, speak to the media after being the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in the county at the Clark County Auditor's Office in Vancouver, Wash., on Thursday Dec.  6, 2012. Washington state now joins several other states that allow gay and lesbian couples to wed. Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a voter-approved law legalizing gay marriage. Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday.  (AP Photo/The Columbian, Zachary Kaufman)
  • In this photo provided by Richard Wood, retired Army Col. Grethe Cammermeyer, left, kisses Diane Divelbess, her partner of 24 years, as they pose for photos after the two received their marriage license Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, in Coupeville, Wash. Two retired military women who fought for the rights of gays in the military were among the hundreds of couples who received their marriage licenses this week as Washington state's voter-approved law allowing same-sex marriage took effect. Former Air Force flight nurse Maj. Margaret Witt, of Spokane, and Cammermeyer, of Whidbey Island, both successfully challenged the military's ban on open service by gays and lesbians. They were first in line on Thursday in their home counties to receive their licenses with their partners as the law took effect. (AP Photo/ kapchur.us photography, Richard Wood)

“Ladder 2 to Command we’re done,” was the last radio transmission of a search team of firefighters, who were trapped inside the burning Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse on Dec. 3, 1999.

They and others had entered the cavernous, six-story building because of a mistaken report that a homeless couple might be inside the abandoned building.

A federal report on the fire said firefighters inside the windowless building did not know the layout, and wore air packs with only about a 30-minute air supply. The firefighters radioed as they ran low on air or became confused about their location. A thermal imager, brought in to help locate the firefighters, was unable to work because of the intense heat.

Six firefighters died in that fire, which took days to battle. Some Franklin County firefighters went to the site to assist. And at least 40 area firefighters attended a memorial service, which included roughly 30,000 firefighters and President Bill Clinton on Dec. 9, 1999.

The tragedy changed firefighting procedures all over the country, including in Franklin County, as local firefighters learn techniques for safeguarding their own, and other firefighters’ lives.

Over the last few years, a network of so-called Rapid Intervention Teams has been growing throughout Franklin County, through the Tri-State Fire Mutual Aid Association agreement that has been in place since the 1940s. Today, whenever a fire department responds to a working fire, a second team — trained to reach unconscious, injured or entrapped firefighters — goes with them.

The National Fire Protection Association says, “for any firefighter that you have inside of a (burning) building, you need to have an exterior team outside, for personnel,” said Greenfield Fire Chief Michael Winn.

Greenfield was among the earliest local departments to establish an RIT team, which saved a firefighter in a burning Chapman Street apartment building in 2009. After receiving a “Mayday” call, the team rushed into the building, where a firefighter had tumbled backwards down a flight of stairs, with 80 pounds of gear on his back. According to a Recorder story at the time, one rescuer had to use a hose to keep the flames off the others, who were using a lifting strap to get the injured man out of the building as quickly as possible, under worsening conditions.

Next to fighting fires, Winn says firefighter safety “has been my number one focus. I feel passionate that the only way to do this is countywide. No one department has enough assets or manpower or equipment to attempt to extinguish a fire AND to have a (RIT) team at the ready.”

In 2003, the Franklin County Fire Chiefs Association started talking about rapid intervention measures and formed a subcommittee to investigate a countywide approach to bringing in rescue teams to help in dangerous fire situations.

In March 2010, the Massachusetts Fire Academy held a 40-hour “train the trainer” educational program to teach a representative from every fire department the core skills of rapid intervention work. Out of 30 fire departments in Franklin County, 25 departments participated. Since then 13 fire departments, including Greenfield, have had enough training to qualify as RIT teams. They include: Bernardston, Charlemont, Conway, Colrain, Erving, Greenfield, Heath, Orange, Montague Center, New Salem, Northfield, South Deerfield and Turners Falls. Other departments are working on training or getting the equipment needed.

These teams of two or more firefighters arrive in full protective gear, but their sole purpose is to rescue other firefighters if needed. They also bring self-contained breathing apparatus, personal alert safety systems, a portable radio that is available to the incident commander, hand tools, flashlights, search rope or webbing, and a Rapid Air Transport bag that provides a downed firefighter with air. Specialized equipment they also may carry includes power saws, hydraulic tools, and a dedicated hose line.

Turners Falls Fire Capt. John Zellmann wrote the standard operating guidelines currently used in Franklin County. Zellman said that the Turners Falls department started one of the first teams in the area. “Initially, it was us and Greenfield,” he said. “We do our own in-house training periodically. In January, our whole department will do it.”

Turners Falls has its share of old, labyrinthian mill buildings and has dealt with a major fire in the old Strathmore Paper mill in 2007, a fatal fire in the Crocker building in 1997, and the collapsing of the old Railroad Salvage building in 2006.

Zellman says one of the primary components of this training is self survival skills. “Anybody that’s an interior firefighter has not only RIT training, but self-survival skills. We drill into the guys, ‘You don’t have much air. If you get into (trouble) get help.’ The RIT teams have to work fast, down and dirty.”

Firefighters are told “If you THINK you have a Mayday, you HAVE a Mayday.”

The term “Mayday” should be used by firefighters who are lost in a building, trapped or in trouble; by a company officer who cannot account for a firefighter operating in a hazard zone or by a member who witnesses or confirms that a firefighter is in trouble. Mayday receives priority radio traffic, and all non-essential radio communication ceases.

A safety officer may be assigned to monitor the scene and constantly evaluate the situation.

In Greenfield, the training for firefighters includes how to avoid getting entangled in electrical wiring if a ceiling collapses around you. Other exercises include scaling a cellar wall to get out of a basement window, and breaking through a studded wall to reach someone trapped on the other side.

“We practice religiously and in a dedicated manner,” said Winn. “The frequency of building fires has gone down, but inversely, the fires we respond to are worse, because of the age, or lighter construction materials.”

“In Greenfield, we also have an aggressive approach to identifying dangerous buildings, with the building inspector, health inspector and fire prevention inspector, he said.

So far, Bernardston’s RIT team has been sent out on four or five calls since forming about two years ago, said Bernardston Fire Chief Peter Shedd. “It’s kind of new, although Vermont and New Hampshire have been using them for quite some time.”

He said about half the firefighters within his department are qualified. “Our station is close to I-91, so we can respond almost anywhere, which is helpful.”

Shedd said the Bernardston team has one member who will stay outside “with a lifeline to these guys who are inside working.”

According to Shelburne Control Supervisor Charles “Butch” Garrity, as soon as an alarm is called, Shelburne Control dispatchers look at an alarm card for that town, which lists first and second choices for assistance from RIT teams of nearby towns. But, if the firefighters from those teams aren’t available, another team is summoned.

If a team at the scene of an out-of-town fire gets called to a fire within their own town, they will be replaced by another team.

“All we do is implement the plan that we have,” said Garrity. “If one town’s unavailable, because their on a call, we go to the next town. It’s a national standard. When there’s a firefighter in trouble, there will be somebody there to help.”

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