Mayday and Rapid Intervention Realities: The Phoenix Perspective

Southwest Supermarket Fire March 14, 2001

This year’s Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week focused on Surviving the Fire Ground: Fire Fighter, Fire Officer and Command Preparedness. One of the major objectives of this year’s theme was addressing a variety of functional areas for the Mayday event. For many of you, the conditions, outcome and lessons learned from the Southwest Supermarket Fire, maydays and the Line of Duty Death of Phoenix (AZ) firefighter Bret Tarver in 2001 are as fresh today as they were ten years ago and certainly as relevant as when many of us first read the Final Report issued by the Phoenix FD.

However, to many others in the Fire Service the Bret Tarver LODD and the Southwest Supermarket fire along with the lessons learned that were identified and the research that was instituted may not have made it onto your radar screen. In this the final days of the 2011 Fire/EMS Safety week, it is very appropriate to provide some insights on this mayday event and more importantly provide you with the opportunty to learn from the past, to understand operational parameters, capabilites, fallacies, misconceptions and limitations when we talk about Mayday, RIT and FAST activities and operational deployments.

Here’s an overview of the event;

On March 14, 2001 the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department lost firefighter Brett Tarver at the Southwest Supermarket fire.

In that event, it was 5:00 in the afternoon, the grocery store was full of people and fire was extending through the building. Phoenix E14 was assigned to the interior of the structure to complete the search, get any people out, and attempt to confine the rapidly spreading fire to the rear of the structure. Shortly after completing their primary search of the building the Captain decided it was time to get out. Tarver and the other members of Engine 14 were exiting the building when Tarver and his partner got lost.

The engineer (driver) was leading the group following the attack line they had brought into the supermarket fire, followed by Tarver and his partner, with the company officer being the last person to begin the long crawl out of the smoke filled structure. At some point Tarver and his partner got off the hose line and moved deeper in the supermarket fire away from their only exit. Early on during the exit attempt through maze like conditions Tarver and his partner basically turned left instead of right. Not knowing this the company officer continued to crawl out of the building thinking his whole crew was ahead of him on the attack line. Tarver and his partner crawled deeper into the fire occupancy eventually ending up in the butcher shop area where they eventually became separated.

Based on radio reports of deteriorating conditions inside the building from E14 and other companies the Incident Commander (IC) considered a switch to a defensive strategy and started the process of pulling all crews out of the structure. During this process Tarver radioed the IC telling him that he was lost in the back of the building. The IC deployed two companies as Rapid Intervention Crews (RICs) through the front access point to no avail.
Other companies coming to their rescue through the back room area of the supermarket later rescued Tarver’s partner. After several unsuccessful rescue attempts, Tarver succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning from the acrid smoke and was eventually removed from the building as a full code. Trying to remove the 260-pound firefighter was nearly impossible for rescue team members. Outside, the resuscitation efforts failed.

During the rescue efforts there were more than twelve (12) mayday’s issued by firefighters trying to make the rescue. On this tragic day, one other firefighter (attempting to rescue Tarver) was removed in respiratory arrest and was later resuscitated by fire department paramedics on the scene.

Over the next year (The Recovery), the department systematically reviewed its standard operating procedures and fireground operational activities at the strategic (command), tactical (sector) and task (company) levels of the entire organization in an attempt to prevent such a tragic event from ever happening again to the Phoenix Fire Department. One of the many significant questions that was asked was why didn’t the rapid intervention concept work? Immediately after the fire the Phoenix Fire Department reviewed its Rapid Intervention and Mayday standard operating procedures (SOPs). Based on drills, training and the data acquired through those drills, in the year following the incident the standard concept of a rapid intervention is now being challenged.

It is now evident that rapid intervention isn’t rapid. (Reference: Excerpts from the original article by Steve Kreis and, LLC. )

In the wake of the 2001 Southwest Supermarket Fire and LODD of FF Brett Tarver, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department issued a comprehensive report of the incident and the lessons learned and research conducted by the FD.

Beyond 2011 Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week; Fire Fighter, Fire Officer and Command Training and Preparedness

  • If you have never heard about the Southwest Supermarket Fire and the Bret Tarver LODD and incident and never read the report;
    • take the time to do so and understand that the concepts of RIT and FAST are made up of far more elements, considerations and more importantly realities of what you think you can do versus what you may actually be able to do.
    • if you’ve read it in the [past], take a few minutes to review and refresh;
    • see where your organization, department and RIT/FAST training and capabilities are today-
    • what are the capabilities of your fire fighters, officers and commanders?
  • Take a look at the NIOSH report and the recommendations contained; how does your deparment stack up today?
  • After reading the reports, take a close look at your organization, your personnel and your training and your capabilities and
  • ask yourself if you are truly able to perform the necessary RIT/FAST operations or
  • do you have a ways to go to better prepare, train and ensure you’re able to undertake the job and address the fireground survival needs when a mayday is called.
  • did you take the time during this safety week to make some progress, identify some new insights, gaps or renewed interests and desire to enhance on your capabilities and strengths?
  • Are your Mayday, RIT and FAST capabilites, skills and knowledge better today in 2011 than they were in 2001?



The following is an article piece posted by my good friend Mike Ward and posted a number of years ago from written by: Mike Ward

Rapid Intervention Reality – from Phoenix

Subject: Rapid Intervention Reality Check By Michael Ward

The Phoenix Fire Department’s Deployment Committee has a sobering message to their firefighters operating in large buildings, like a 7,500 square foot warehouse: “If you extend an attack line 150′, get 40 feet off the line and then run out of air, it will take us 22 minutes to get you out of the structure.” The lesson to remember is not to get off the fire attack line. The statement is based on 200 rapid intervention drills conducted by PFD as part of their recovery process after Firefighter/paramedic Brett Tarver died in the March 14, 2001 Southwest Supermarket fire.

PFD obtained three vacant commercial buildings: a warehouse, a movie theatre and a country-western bar. The RIT drill was for the first alarm companies to respond to a report of two firefighters in trouble. One is disoriented and the other one is unconscious. The buildings were sealed from outside light and the facemasks were obscured to simulate heavy smoke conditions. The RIT teams were equipped and deployed as if this is was a working fire. The department ran through about 200 RIT drills with 1144 PFD firefighters participating. Their activities were monitored and timed. An Arizona State University statistician analyzed the data.

The results show that rapid intervention is not rapid:

  • Rescue crew ready state 2.50 minutes
  • Mayday to RIC entry 3.03 minutes
  • RIC contact with downed firefighter 5.82 minutes
  • Total time inside building for each RIC team 12.33 minutes
  • Total time for rescue 21 minutes

The evolutions also revealed three consistent ratios:

  • It takes 12 firefighters to rescue one
  • One in five RIC members will get into some type of trouble themselves.
  • A 3000-psi SCBA bottle has 18.7 minutes of air (plus or minus 30%)

The results of the RIC drills reflects the experience Phoenix had during the efforts to rescue Firefighter/paramedic Brett Tarver. There were a dozen maydays sounded during the rescue effort, and one PFD firefighter was removed from the supermarket in respiratory arrest.

The Phoenix experience is not unique. Houston Fire Chief Chris Connealy participated in a discussion about the Phoenix RIC drills during the 2003 Change in the Fire Service Symposium. On October 13, 2001, Houston Engine 2 Captain Jay Jahnke died on the fifth floor of Four Leaf Towers, a 41 story residential high-rise. During the Houston RIC operation, two heavy rescue company firefighters became disoriented, low on air and had to rescue themselves. An engine company captain and firefighter run out of air and collapsed on the fire floor. Chief Connealy said that the Houston experience is similar to Phoenix.

Phoenix is changing its approach to rapid intervention crews in three procedural ways: increase suppression units assigned to RIC, increased in command officers, and considering a two-part RIC process.

There is a scalar approach to RIC dispatch assignments in Phoenix. For a “3-1 Assignment” (three engines and one ladder), a fourth engine and an ems transport (rescue) is added to the assignment to function as the rapid intervention team. For a 1st alarm assignment, two engines, one ladder, one rescue and a battalion chief are the RIC team. A second alarm includes an additional two engines and ladder for RIC. Beyond a second alarm, the incident commander can call additional companies as needed.

The recovery process also looked at the utilization of company and command officers on the fireground. A company officer core competency is to command a fire company. A core chief officer competency is to command fire companies. It is a function of the fire department hierarchical structure, not of personality. For example, a captain filling-in as a battalion chief does a better job as a West Sector officer than she would have if she was commanding Engine 2 AND in charge of West Sector. At the sector level of the incident management system, company officers are required to wear two hats. There are too many levels of tasks. Phoenix suggests that it would be more effective to send more command officers to a fire event to function as sector and division commanders and allow the company officers to command their companies. It is a waste of talent and experience to allow command officers to stay in their fire stations while a low-frequency, high risk event like a structure fire is occurring
in the city.

A third change in rapid intervention crews is using a two-phase approach. Many of the RIC team members ran out of air during the training evolutions. The drills showed that a 3000-psi SCBA bottle was good for 13.09 to 24.31 minutes of air. The average SCBA time was 18.7 minutes. The average time from mayday to removal was 21 minutes. RIC teams were running out of air during the firefighter removal phase. In addition, it was taking a crew of 12 firefighters to remove one firefighter. Phase one of a RIC response is to send a team in to locate the firefighters in trouble. Once located, a second RIC team enters to remove the firefighter.

You are welcome to share this with everyone. Please include the following: taken from written by:
Michael Ward, Fire Science Program Head, Northern Virginia Community College.


Other recent postings and references from

Day One: Fire/EMS Safety, Health & Survival Week 2011: Day One- Are You Ready?

Day Two: Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week: Day Two- Building Knowledge = Fire Fighter Safety

Day Three: Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week: Day Three-The New Rules of Engagement

Day Four: Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week: Day Four -The New Fire Ground

Day Five: Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week 2011: Day Five: Near-Misses, Maydays and Floor Collapses

Day Six: Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week 2011, Day Six; From Waldbaum’s to Hackensack-Worcester to Charleston; Legacies for Operational Safety

Day Seven: Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week 2011, Day Seven; Fire Fighter, Fire Officer and Command Training and Preparedness

Filed Under: In the StreetsSafety & Survival


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