By Richard Marinucci
“Ever vigilant!” This has been a motto of the American fire service from its very beginning. Originally, it was intended to specify response to hostile fires. It has morphed into an all-hazards response where the public has come to expect that its fire department will respond regardless of the emergency request.
Firefighters know that when the public has no other option, it will request a response from the fire department. Nothing epitomizes this more than the stereotypical “cat in a tree” call. But, this all-hazards approach has presented many challenges, some of which many fire departments cannot address because of a lack of resources, whether it be staffing, training, or equipment.
What does this all mean? Perhaps departments need to be more realistic in their assessments of resources and the capabilities that they possess. Few organizations have the means to be all things to all people. The main reason for this is a lack of funding that would help develop a proper response. Yet, the vast majority of firefighters cannot say no when the public calls, regardless of whether or not the response falls within their basic responsibilities. This is an admirable quality, and it is not my intention to suggest any changes in this approach. However, there needs to be a realistic assessment so that the expected service is delivered and firefighters are not subject to any unnecessary risk. Once a department responds, there is an expectation that the organization and its members will have the means to address the situation. It is also expected that any recognized laws, regulations, and standards will be followed.
It was not that long ago that a fire department responded to things that were on fire. The additional responsibilities have been added in the past 40 or 50 years. Of all the additions, the most demanding has been emergency medical service (EMS). This has added a significant number of responses to the point of being the largest number in most organizations. It has also added required training hours to obtain and maintain licensure. This column is not about EMS, but I mention the topic to emphasize the significance of it in today’s fire service. Between fire and EMS, most departments have their hands full and don’t have more than the bare minimum resources to take on the needs of special rescue.
When the special rescue events were added to firefighters’ job responsibilities, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards were developed to provide guidance and safety measures to minimize the risks associated with these responses. This has been a change for the operation of departments. While general industry standards apply to firefighting, there are no specific rules on firefighting. Yet in hazmat responses and other technical rescue events, there are definite rules that must be followed. This alone provides direction for fire departments when they are expected to solve problems that fall into these categories. A good first step when evaluating whether or not to commit resources to responses is to look at the OSHA requirements and determine if they can be met. There is a reason the requirements exist, and compliance is mandatory, not optional. The specificity of the regulations provides a good roadmap to follow.
TECHNICAL RESCUE TRAINING
One of the keys to a successful response to technical rescue is having properly trained personnel in adequate numbers to deliver the expected service. This has to meet the established standards. If departments do not have enough people, or if there is not enough time to train the personnel, then other options should be pursued. This would most likely be through mutual aid associations and attracting personnel with a passion for the response so they will be motivated to seek mastery through training and education. For the “mutual aid” model to work, participants must commit to providing their fair share of resources including the number of people and the time necessary to be ready to respond. There also has to be a means to release personnel for response. As with all mutual aid, it cannot morph into “moochual” aid!
Training for technical rescue is one of the most challenging aspects of maintaining a competent and prepared response. In so many cases, the number of responses is minimal to the point that maintaining motivation to continue is an issue. You are asking firefighters to prepare for an incident that may not occur in their career and to keep up their skills to the level required by established standards. In many cases, departments have gotten busy enough that there is no time in the regular day, so all (or most) preparation is done outside the normal work schedule. This can place stress on both the individual and the department. There are also cases where individuals get frustrated by the lack of activity and choose to leave the voluntary position. This leads to turnover where new members start from zero to begin the process to get the necessary credentials. Teams staffed properly can withstand the turnover and challenges, but there remains the need to have passionate leadership to maintain the continuity of the technical rescue teams.
EQUIPPING FOR SPECIAL RESCUE
Special equipment is needed for special rescue. Some of it is very specific and can be more complicated than typical firefighting tools. It also takes up space. The challenges are providing and maintaining training on the equipment, maintaining the equipment, and storing the equipment in such a manner that it can be delivered to the emergency in a timely manner. Departments usually have to add vehicles to carry the equipment. This involves cost and requires space. Once obtained, there needs to be regular checks to make sure they are in ready condition. Personnel must have the time and expertise to do the checks and perform the maintenance. This becomes part of the team members’ responsibility. Again, there is a time issue—as departments get more responsibility, the time to perform the required duties becomes more of a strain.
Technical rescues are not frequent events for most fire departments. This presents challenges for preparing to respond to such incidents. There needs to be adequate training and appropriate tools and equipment. With all the other growing responsibilities placed on fire departments, conscious decisions need to be made regarding the resources that are going to be committed and from where they will come. Departments know they will be called for most any type of emergency. Yet, at some point, they must be realistic in their assessment of their potential to provide the service. If they don’t have the resources, they need to look at other options. This is not about getting some rope from the local hardware store and then calling yourself a technical rescue team. It is looking at the standards and determining if you have the capabilities, personnel, time, and funding. At some point, departments need to realize that they cannot be everything to everyone.
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 Equipmentand 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.