In the not-too-distant past, many organizations called themselves “fire departments.” But, a trend emerged where the word “rescue” was added to provide emphasis to the most important aspect of the work.
This also helped in identifying the expanded role of “fire departments” to other emergency services including emergency medical services (EMS) and technical rescue. One might say it was a shift in branding to help promote all the services provided and remind the general public of the ever-increasing responsibilities added to the job description. Whatever the logic or reasoning for the change, the importance of rescue cannot be understated. As such, the need for proper training, policy, and application is a constant.
One could debate the various approaches to rescues and the differing viewpoints with respect to rescue profiling. By this, I mean that when a building is on fire, firefighters spring into action, almost acting on autopilot. But, if someone is caught in an unknown hazardous materials cloud, I would bet most firefighters would take a second look and slow down their approach.
We could look at a variety of calls: If a hot wire was on someone’s car or in close proximity, a similar approach would be taken. Regarding rescues from injury accidents, assessments with respect to survivability of wrecks come into play, and an evaluation of the hazards faced by the firefighters will affect strategy. For special rescue responses, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules and applicable standards dictate which approach to take.
Different Rescue, Different Approach
“So what?” you might ask. The real question is, “Why do we take a different approach to various rescues?” The answer may be a combination of things. One aspect could be our history with each type of rescue and our culture. We have been conditioned to work quickly in fire situations. Since the days of Ben Franklin, firefighters have been portrayed as racing into fires to search and rescue victims. Pop culture movies like “Backdraft” reinforce this image. Another reason could be our familiarity with these events and our training. From basic training to field training, we are conditioned to respond as quickly as possible to fires starting from the time of notification. In most organizations, the turnout time for a hazmat incident is slower than for a structure fire. Another consideration is that we have the proper protective equipment for the event and have enough “safety” to skip some steps if a rescue is even remotely possible.
In cases where the typical fire department is sent to a chemical spill, the same approach probably is not taken. The crews, depending on their training and available safety equipment, would take a much more methodical approach and would slow down. This could be because these incidents are not as frequent, and the same comfort level does not exist. More than likely, the crews would identify that the incident involves a chemical, probably unknown, and would request a specially trained team. If a human life was in the danger zone, there would still be a slower approach.
You could also make the same argument for a confined space. There are many cases where rescuers rushed into a confined space and became victims in need of rescue. History provided a lesson, and regulations followed that mandated a more organized and structured approach.
But, why shouldn’t all rescues follow a similar approach? Some may transpire more quickly, but the basics would be in place. There would be a quick assessment of survivability and potential risks to the rescuers. The necessary resources would include staffing, tools, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. Deployment of properly trained personnel would be coordinated and done within preestablished practices, policies, and procedures. Firefighters would not be placed in a no-win situation based on all these factors. Departments would be prepared for the emergency and would have practices sufficiently to have unconscious competence. They would be skilled in reading the situation including the building, smoke, and risks. Obviously, the more they practice, learn, and gain experience, the more quickly they can spring into action. It would be controlled and intellectual aggressiveness, not an arbitrary approach based on a culture.
Another way to look at this is through rescue profiling. Firefighters need to train to recognize situations that call for quick action and justify the level of risk. They also need to know when there is no chance of changing the outcome. They must practice this regularly and routinely—getting the necessary reps to be able perform the assessment quickly and correctly. They must also be able to justify their actions at the conclusion of the incident, regardless of the outcome. One would also expect this approach to be a known policy in the organization so that all members are aware and the approach is justified and reasonable, not arbitrary and capricious.
It could be argued that fire departments take a very emotional approach to structure fire rescues as opposed to nonfire rescues. EMS responses are based on logical protocols and a system of triage. Certain presentations generally dictate a determination that no human action or intervention will change the outcome. I would suggest that many in the fire service can use a similar approach for a fire, but other factors influence tactical objectives. Officers and firefighters instinctively know that certain spaces are not survivable but will still enter these areas to exhaust all efforts. This is very noble but may not be practical and is the reason it is such an emotional issue that is not necessarily based on logic and reality.
Rescue is the most important function of a fire department. It does not matter if it is a structure fire, vehicle extrication, special rescue scenario, or anything else where a human life is endangered. Rescue profiling has become an important part of determining the amount of risk applicable to every situation. More study and training can improve decision making and speed the process. Just for the sake of discussion, how would we approach fire rescues if we could erase our history and culture and view these rescues as we do other situations? Would we have OSHA standards that would dictate actions? Would we better train our people to recognize no-win situations? I am sure it would be different but don’t know exactly how different.
But, I need to return to the current reality and realize that we will always view fire rescues differently. That is not a bad thing, but we still must look to ways that minimize the risks to firefighters while still offering what we have been doing for hundreds of years.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, 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 has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.