Firefighters train for nearly every situation imaginable, such as finding their way through obstacle courses built to resemble collapsed buildings and trying to shave precious seconds off response times.
Last Thursday, area firefighters plunged headfirst into the smoky darkness of a Brown Deer warehouse to train for an emergency they hope to never see, yet can't be unprepared for: when a colleague is trapped or lost in a burning building, oxygen is running out, and the clock is ticking.
The 11-member fire departments of Mutual Aid Box Alarm System Division 107 - Cudahy, Franklin, Greendale, Greenfield, Hales Corners, North Shore, Oak Creek, St. Francis, South Milwaukee, Wauwatosa and West Allis - came together to culminate two year's worth of training on the concept of a Rapid Intervention Team. RIT members are tasked with finding and extracting trapped, disoriented, or injured firefighters.
The training, made possible by a FEMA grant, means that when MABAS firefighters need to save each other, they'll know who they're looking for, and how to work with one another. It's an experience and familiarity which might save lives someday, says North Shore Fire Department Chief Robert Whitaker.
"We work together as agencies on a regular basis," he said, "so we also want to train together. You don't want to be working together in an emergency and never have trained together or never have talked to anyone from those agencies."
'I've lost my partner'
One of the day's three drills begins when a voice comes crackling over the commander's radio.
"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" calls Greenfield Assistant Fire Chief George Weber from the depths of the mock inferno. "Involved in a collapse! I've lost my partner! I'm off the hose line!"
And so the members of RIT One head into the blackness and smoke of the warehouse, crawling on their hands and knees, following the hose which their trapped colleagues would have laid down on their way in earlier.
They peer ahead with flashlights and an infrared camera, shuffling toward the wailing of the downed firefighters' Personal Alert Safety System devices. They mark their progress into the structure by securing rope lines which serve to guide the next RIT.
When their air tanks begin to ring - a clanging, metallic school bell sound - they know they're nearing the end of their oxygen and head back, making way for the next team to forage ahead.
"When you're in there you really have to monitor your air," said North Shore Captain John Maydak. "Otherwise, you could become part of the problem. They have 20 minutes worth."
Importance of communication
Ultimately, the goal of the training is to make each of the MABAS departments ready to deploy a rescue team at a moment's notice.
"It's a good opportunity to test all aspects of the RIT response," said Wauwatosa Lieutenant Bryan Tello. "It makes us stronger and more responsive."
Though it's hard to keep a level head when the world - sometimes literally - is falling down around you, communication is key in the eyes of the RIT trainees.
"The one thing that's going to kill a firefighter is poor communication," Weber said. "Imagine this place just fell on top of me and I have to make what may be my last call for help, with the adrenaline and everything. And there's a guy sitting outside of the building, and I'm hoping he hears every piece of information I give him."
It was a long and trying series of drills, but in the downtime between sessions, camaraderie and smoke mingled in the air.
"Fun," said Brad Polaske of the Franklin Fire Department, mopping his brow as he thought back on the exercise he had just completed. "It was fun."
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