By DAVID GREEN
A human chain of firefighters makes its way through a dark tunnel in the basement of the former Porter Lumber Company in Morenci. They’re searching for another department member who should have emerged from the building several minutes ago.
Upstairs, another set of volunteers is making its way though the “entanglement room,” an area strewn with loose wires, insulation and heating ductwork. They have waxed paper covering their face masks to simulate the reduced vision inside a burning building.
In each case, the goal is the same: Learning to prepare for the worst, for the time when a fellow department member is in trouble.
The training session Saturday introduced 30 firefighters from nine departments to the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) concept. Whenever a department responds to an interior structure fire, a RIT team from a nearby support department is called to watch over the process.
Morenci sent a team to Hudson five times last year, plus once each to Clayton and Wauseon.
“It’s common practice to use your neighboring department’s RIT team,” said Morenci chief Chad Schisler, “because you don’t want to use your own.”
Searching for one of your own might not lead to clear thinking, he said, and besides, most departments in this area don’t have enough personnel to fight a fire and provide RIT.
Brad Lonis, who joined Phil Funchion, Steve Miller and Nick Smith as the first Morenci volunteers to complete training, explained the role of the RIT team.
“Before we get to the scene, we’ll call the IC [incident commander] and ask for basic information about the type of structure and about the fire,” Lonis said.
Upon arrival, the RIT commander does a walk-around to note exits and hazards that might impede an escape. The remainder of the RIT team is apprised of the situation, then two of them make an inspection around the outside of the building.
If the fire is in a two-story structure, an egress ladder is erected and tagged so it stays in place. Equipment is made ready and the crew awaits instructions.
The commander makes constant contact with the main department IC, Lonis said, to remain aware of the location of firefighters as they move around the structure.
It’s a lot of work for what? Fortunately, there’s never been a need to send a RIT team inside since the training effort began in Lenawee County four years ago, but it’s like an insurance policy—ready to use if needed.
Out of Morenci’s 28 department members, 16 are RIT trained and the number is slowly growing among surrounding departments that could be called for help. Fayette and Lyons each have four RIT members now and Wauseon is up to five. The Fairfield department has three.
Members from all of those departments attended the training Saturday at the lumberyard—an empty structure eyed for future demolition that turned out to be a perfect training facility.
The Morenci Church of the Nazarene owns the property. In 2002, church members presented a plan to city council for construction of a new church and community center on the property.
Schisler wouldn’t mind if the building project remains on hold for years, as long as RIT classes are allowed to operate there.
He sees value in the training that goes well beyond the basic purpose of rescue work.
“We’re preparing for RIT, but the firefighter survival skills taught are used every time you go into a burning building,” Schisler said, and that’s of utmost importance to him.
When his department members crawl through an actual smoke-filled “entanglement room,” the skills they learned in RIT class could very well save their lives.