It was not a real emergency, although firefighters were treating it as if it was. It was part of an intensive training exercise to respond to a situation in which a firefighter or civilian might be trapped.
One of most horrifying things a firefighter might hear is the call of a colleague trapped in a fire. This can happen in many ways. Flames might cut off his retreat. A weakened hall or ceiling might fall and pin him. Smoke conditions and fire conditions might even confuse the firefighter, sending him or her in circles.
For such cases, the Fire Department has a special unit situation nearest the fire site, a fire rescue truck filled with necessary equipment.
Firefighters spend hours in the classroom and hours more conducting practical exercises that will provide them with the necessary reflexes and skills to save a firefighter or someone else who might be trapped in a remote section of a building. This team is called the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) - a group of specially trained firefighters who stand by at a fire scene to immediately answer a call for help from a brother or sister firefighter who may be trapped. Saving someone who is trapped is the RIT's only purpose.
Over the last several weeks, the Bayonne Fire Department has been conducting cross training for its entire force in order to make every firefighter familiar with the techniques employed. To this end, they made use of the building on Avenue C where they injected smoke and created the confusing conditions firefighters might encounter during a real emergency.
The building, owned by the Bayonne Housing Authority, will be renovated later on. The city allowed the firefighters to fill it with smoke and to knock holes in the walls so they could conduct a realistic practice.
"This is designed to help rescue somebody who might be trapped," said firefighter Jim Lonnay. "If a firefighter is trapped, we go in. We're here to help our own."
The training, he said, is designed to help firefighters get used to the conditions and to know what should be done in various situations.
"We train all the time," Fire Captain Joseph Lanny said. "We drill and we also cross-train other firefighters to make certain that everyone has the capability."
Rescuers work in teams
In the recent drill, Lonnay stood on the sidewalk near the rescue truck, staring up at the smoke, his radio rasping out reports from other firefighters inside the building. It is routine for such teams to have a backup fire fighter outside the danger zone to lend support, immune from the confusion that often occurs inside.
Firefighters carry axes or sledge hammers and a variety of other items such as rope. They sometimes have to use power saws and other equipment that is stored in the rescue truck and brought into the scene as needed. The RIT unit usually parks near the operation and remains in contact with the incident commander.
Chief Mike Donovan said rescue teams work in pairs. "No one ever works alone," Donovan said.
Firefighters climb up through the dark building, each loaded down with a full complement of equipment, including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and masks which allow them to breathe in places where fire may have already used up all the available air.
SCBAs keep firefighters alive since blazes frequently release a wide variety of toxic gasses - including carbon monoxide - and keep firefighters' lungs from being scalded by the temperatures that can sometimes reach 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Usually SCBAs have a 30-minute time limit, although firefighters generally are required to use only up to 20 minutes at a time.
Rescue efforts also require a variety of highly technical devices such as infrared visual equipment that will allow them to see through the smoke.
"These let us see body heat through the haze," said Lanny.
Moving ahead with care
In this exercise, a smoke machine churned out plumes of gray that filled the interior of the second floor. The heavily-laden firefighters moved slowly, with flashlights sweeping ahead of them like Star Wars laser swords.
Lanny said the RIT unit responds to a mayday call if firefighters or if civilians are reported trapped. The unit also responds if a firefighter has ceased moving for a significant amount of time.
"Firefighters are equipped with a sensor that alerts us if a firefighter is in trouble or hasn't moved for a while," Lanny said.
Rescue efforts are carefully orchestrated. This includes setting up a lifeline rope to the location after others have verified it. The unit goes into a fire situation accompanied by a hose company who advances the fire hose as they go.
The rescue team breaks through walls and other obstacles to reach the trapped person. They carry bottles of air for the trapped person because the fire will likely make breathing hazardous or impossible.
As firefighters move through rooms searching for the trapped firefighter, they will often close doors behind them to avoid allowing the fire to spread. They may also mark an area to show that they have already searched it.
To avoid confusion, search teams use a variety of patterns, sticking to this until the search is concluded. Usually one person takes the lead, and this person remains in the lead throughout the search. The lead person feels doors and walls ahead of the searcher, checking for possible danger. The leader stays close to the wall as he moves, frequently dragging along a life line rope. Getting lost or disoriented is a significant danger rescue workers face inside a burning or smoke-filled building.
Other firefighters from the hose unit advance the hose as the search team moves ahead in order to provide instant fire suppression.
Once a trapped firefighter is located, the team notifies the incident commander, giving an approximate location. The rescue team checks if the trapped person is alive or unconscious, gives air to the person if necessary, gives verbal encouragement to keep up the trapped person's morale, and the rescue team removes obstacles, cutting through anything that might pin the trapped person.
Removal could be complicated by some injury, so the team may be required to rig up a sling to carry the injured person outside. As the team leaves, other firefighters may work to enlarge the wall openings or narrow doorways in order to make traveling easier. And when removed from the building, the trapped person is greeted by an EMT outside, where treated.
"We assume the person is alive," Donovan said.
Firefighters were also cutting holes in the roof of the building during the drill.
"Some people wonder why we do that," Lanny said. "We're not doing this just to cut holes in the roof. When a building catches fire, it often gets superheated inside. We cut the holes to vent the building and to avoid a building flash or backdraft."
RIT is part of a special fire company
Bayonne's Rescue No. 1 is part of a special fire company located at the former Military Ocean Terminal. They are trained in a variety of programs that deal with possible terrorist situations, hazardous material spills or biological weapons, weapons of mass destruction.
This includes dealing with radiation situations such as if they had to respond to a report of a "dirty bomb." This is a conventional explosive used to scatter radioactive materials throughout its blast area. A number of Bayonne firefighters went to Nevada for training.
This unit works with local officials in various capacities, such as Hudson Regional Health.
Lanny said Fire Director Patrick Boyle, Fire Chief Thomas Lynch and Mayor Joseph Doria have been instrumental in making certain that the unit has cutting-edge equipment necessary to function, as well as providing the most up-to-date training for those involved.
Chief Donovan said firefighters throughout the city are being cross trained in the rapid intervention so that all firefighters know it.
During the recent drill, firefighters from Engine Company No. 6 and Ladder No. 3 worked with Rescue No. 1.
Contact Al Sullivan at: email@example.com