(Wilmington, DE) – January 5, 2008 -- An early morning Delaware blaze may have turned deadly for 7 firefighters if not for mutual aid pre-planning and a superfast FAST Team. The blaze in a 2-story apartment complex in Alban Park (see map), moved quickly through the building, trapping 7 firefighters who were working on the 2nd floor.
The fire at 561 Homestead Road was reported just before 7:30am to the New Castle County Fireboard, which dispatched three volunteer departments. The building complex is in a subdivision bordering the state’s largest city, Wilmington.
Upon his arrival Chief Chuck Hayes of the Five Points Fire Company reported heavy smoke and fire conditions in the 50-year old building complex. His radio report automatically activated the response of a Rapid Intervention Team (or FAST Team) whose sole responsibility is to rescue and recover trapped or lost firefighters during working alarms. Not long after they arrived, the team was put to the ultimate test.
The RIT Team assignment was given to Engine-1 of the Wilmington Fire Department, which responded as a part of a long-standing mutual aid agreement with the county’s volunteer companies. The RIT Team stood by as firefighters from Five Points and Elsmere advanced a handline to the 2nd floor.
Wilmington Fire Dept. RIT Team at 2006 High-Rise Blaze
According to a report published in the Wilmington News Journal, “…the fire below them burned through the hoseline, cutting off their water supply. As the fire grew worse, the trapped firefighters issued a ‘mayday’ call, triggering a Rapid Intervention Team response from a 4-person crew outside, associated with Wilmington Engine No. 1.” (1)
With the stairway gone, the RIT Team quickly improvised creating an escape path using ground ladders to replace the steps. Engine-1’s crew located the firefighters and carefully led them to safety in a rescue operation that took approximately 5 minutes. The rescued firefighters had little or no breathing air remaining in their bottles.
Tom Mitten, a spokesperson for the Five Points Fire Company told the News Journal that the operation “Went like clockwork.”
The trapped firefighters all experienced injuries during the operation and were stabilized at the scene, then transported to the Christiana Trauma Center for further treatment.
The Alban Park blaze clearly shows the importance and effectiveness of Rapid Intervention Teams on the fireground. (2) Like the deadly Charleston Sofa Warehouse fire, disorientation was the reason for the “Mayday” calls in Alban Park. Unfortunately, Charleston firefighters had no RIT or FAST Team in position and it was just a matter of moments before 9 brave firemen were lost. (3)
“Knowing that the RIT Team is on the fireground is always a real comfort,” one firefighter noted. “But the fact that they actually went to work was a frightening experience.”
Volunteer departments in New Castle County, Delaware as well as the all-career Wilmington Fire Department are to be commended for having trained, trained and trained again in RIT Operations. Like the man said, RIT Teams are a real comfort to have around when the job goes bad. And it is quite possible that 7 Delaware firefighters owe their lives to a relatively new system that is designed to rescue the rescuers.