Special Rescue Incidents

By Richard Marinucci

Ever since fire departments began responding to incidents, they have been responsible for rescuing people. In the beginning it was mostly from fire. The advent of new rescue responsibilities is a relatively recent development. There are commonalities but there are also differences that merit consideration. Although fire departments are expected to respond to almost all rescue situations, there is a different mindset that is needed for these incidents. You could also say that in many ways, the culture of special rescue is different from that of firefighting.

Fire departments have always been expected to respond and help whenever someone needs rescue, regardless of the situation. Firefighters would adapt and improvise to do whatever was necessary. But special rescue has evolved to the point that expectations of performance are much higher, and techniques, equipment, and personal protective equipment (PPE) continue to evolve. Training and preparation become even more important considering that many of these responses are infrequent.

Different Training Standard

Special rescue preparation and response are different from fire response. First and foremost, those engaged in special rescue are required to meet minimum training standards and continue training. Those who are asked to respond to hazmat calls, rope rescues, search and rescue, collapses, trenches, and the like are to comply with OSHA standards to minimize the risks with these types of events. Take, for example, training requirements for hazmat rescue responses. Not only do responders need the initial training, but there are requirements for annual refreshers. In comparison, once someone has received initial firefighter training, annual ongoing training is not mandated. Another thing to consider is that there is no distinction between career and volunteer responders. For example, in the State of Michigan, career firefighters need to be certified to Firefighter II, while volunteers are only required to have Firefighter I. But if they are asked to respond to a hazmat incident, there is no distinction.

Although standards exist for firefighting operations, the regulations for special rescue situations have more bite to them. In the United States, there are more than 30,000 fire departments. Each, at least theoretically, has a choice as to how it will prepare to respond to fires regarding staffing, equipment, and training. In the case of special rescues, there is less choice and more commonality among responding agencies, or at least the requirements indicate this. As such, organizations opting into this arena must accept the standards that are set and prepare accordingly.

No Wiggle Room

Departments that promote their special rescue capabilities must meet minimum training requirements. This is a case where there is no option to provide personnel who are not trained. I know in the fire service that we are apt to send people who are not totally trained or prepared if there is no other option. This is not a choice for special rescue situations. Further, staffing is not really negotiable. You need the proper number of people. To compare, you could send one person in a fire truck to a fire if that was the best you could do. In a special rescue situation, this is unacceptable. You cannot send one person in a pickup truck to a trench rescue, a hazmat incident, or any of the other special situations. You have to commit to the resources needed and specified.

If this is the case, what can we learn from it? Why will policy makers shortchange fire response but understand that special rescues cannot be reduced? Probably it has as much to do with history and culture as anything else. The special rescue situations have been developed with specific requirements. Those in the industry know what needs to be done and the consequences of shortcuts. Hence, standards are such that they must be met, and the culture of the fire service accepts this. The risks associated with special rescues are minimized because of this approach.

Another contrast between firefighting and special rescues is the approach taken by the rescuers. Firefighters are conditioned to react and initiate operations immediately on arrival. They are very action-oriented and must be controlled through accountability systems and discipline lest they begin freelancing. Special rescues are much more methodical and do not seem to have the same sense of urgency. For many firefighters, myself included, it can be very difficult to watch the pace of these operations. I know this from personal experience. Even as the overall officer in charge, I must trust the technicians to do things on their terms and not get overly impatient. For example, you will not see properly trained rescue technicians race to a trench with a trapped victim and instantly begin digging. They know the hazards, and their training prepares them to act accordingly. I can’t imagine a firefighter arriving at the scene of a fire behaving the same way.

Personal Protection

Firefighting equipment and PPE have remained virtually the same over time, with technological advances to the basic premise. In contrast, special rescue PPE and equipment seem to evolve rather quickly. If you think back to early protection for hazmat teams and the differences available today you will get the picture. Various monitors are being developed and improved on. New tools and older tools not previously thought to have value become part of the necessary cache for the responders. Special rescue personnel and teams must constantly monitor developments in the profession and keep up with whatever is determined to be the latest and greatest. It could be viewed the same as the changes that have been made to vehicle extrication. It was not too long ago that the basic tool consisted of a hydraulic tool. Now there are many more tools available to enhance these operations.

The Right People

Special rescues are low-frequency events. They require highly trained people who are willing to commit the time and energy to prepare, even though they may not be called into action for some time. It is a special person who has this perspective, and those who participate as team members must be carefully selected and possess at least a little patience. Having the right people on the team will provide the best service. This is not earth-shattering news, but the point is that a different skill set from firefighting is required and this must be considered.

Firefighting and special rescues are a natural pairing. There is no agency better suited to accept this responsibility. With this said, organizations must realize that although a relationship between the two exists, there are stark differences. The approach to rescuing a person in a special situation such as a trench, ice, swiftwater, or collapse is different from rescues performed at a structure fire. The fire service will risk a lot to save a life in a fire. Special rescuers will do the same, but their frame of reference is much different. They are conditioned much differently, and the standard of performance is not the same. Recognize and acknowledge the differences so your team is the best prepared it can be.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. 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 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 three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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