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Technical Rescue Is Not Firefighting

Issue 2 and Volume 16.

Richard Marinucci

Technical rescue has become more commonplace in the fire service recently, with specialties in Urban Search and Rescue (USAR or collapse), high/low angle, ice, swiftwater and confined space among others. While proving to be a very valuable service to the communities, they offer different challenges to the fire service. The mindset of personnel and even the culture is different than that of the traditional firefighting services and emergency medical services.

How so? First, the technical rescue services are much more methodical in their approach to an emergency and, on the surface, do not have the same sense of urgency to act. Response to a fire is very focused on speed, to the point of taking short cuts. Technical rescues rarely deviate from their procedures.

For example, it is probably no big secret that firefighters do not always wear their protective clothing according to manufacturers’ recommendations. In the interest of speed, sometimes the helmet strap is not used, not all the straps on the SCBA are fastened and maybe the backup lines are not always in place. Contrast that to the technical rescue incident – equipment is double-checked, backup equipment is in place and policies are followed or the operation does not begin.

Firefighters know of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) requirement for 2-in/2-out. However, there is an exception if a firefighter suspects there might be a life in danger. Suffice to say that some firefighters and organizations have stretched that interpretation to meet their desired operations. Conversely, trained rescuers have been conditioned to take the necessary safety precautions to minimize risks. These operations typically take a relatively long time to set up compared to a firefighting situation.

Understanding this is important for fire chiefs and command staff. Those of us who have been in the business for a while find this contrary to what was learned early in our careers. Sometimes there are calls where command officers are not totally prepared for the operations of special rescue forces, and command may expect instant action. This is not how technical rescue works, and the officer must understand this and become patient with expectations as the event unfolds.

Those assigned to special rescue teams should have a mindset that accepts the roles and responsibilities of the team while realizing that there may not be a large number of calls for service. These are clearly low frequency events. Therefore, those who accept the challenge must be willing to train long hours knowing the chances to use the service are infrequent. Fortunately buildings don’t collapse every day, people don’t fall through the ice routinely and confined space calls are infrequent. But when they do happen, they require highly trained specialists to carry out the tasks safely.

Selecting prospective team members requires the fire chief (or whoever makes the selection) to be conscious of the requirements of the team. Members must often be the most physically fit firefighters, as they will be asked to perform particularly stressful operations. They also must be disciplined to follow orders, maintain their positions, accept their roles and realize there are a lot of opportunities to “hurry up and wait.” Aggressive firefighters might not be the best to select if they are not able to temper their enthusiasm.

Technical rescue is an expensive proposition that requires specialized equipment and training. Few departments have the resources available to properly staff and equip a team. Often regional teams are established with multiple departments contributing both personnel and funding. This cooperation is essential in many areas in order to field a properly trained and equipped response.

For success, participating agencies must understand that the responsibilities of the team need to be shared by all. An equitable funding strategy must be developed. Departments must also know that this is an added function to the firefighter’s responsibilities, and most training will not be during the normal work day. There are overtime implications and staffing issues to consider.

Rescue equipment can be expensive and requires appropriate maintenance. Repairs need to be done by qualified personnel and according to manufacturers’ specifications. Because of the infrequency of use, some may try to stretch the acceptable life span of equipment because the wear and tear is minimal.

Housing equipment can be a challenge. Regional organizations would prefer locations that are central or strategic within the response area. This may not be possible because storage space in many fire stations may be limited. Equipment may be placed more for the reason that space is available than for reasons of response.

Considerations for training also are a factor. There must be personnel readily available to deliver the equipment to the scene of the emergency or to the training site. The best location is therefore a place with space that is centrally located and has the personnel to maintain and deliver the equipment quickly.

The infrequency of events or emergencies creates challenges for every department to maintain a resource that is proving to be very essential in the emergency response world. These events do not happen every shift and require special training and equipment, as well as personnel with the proper mindset. Teams are costly to establish and activate.

The normal firefighting mentality does not always match up with what is needed for these special situations. Community and fire department leaders must understand the differences and develop their teams accordingly. If they decide special rescue teams are right for them, they need to develop solid plans to make sure that their response capabilities are appropriate and that all members understand the expectations.

Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Northville Township (Mich.) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999 he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He holds three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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