Special Rescue – Keeping Necessary Tools In Service

Special rescue events present a great challenge to the fire service due primarily to the fact that they are infrequent.

Special rescues can include hazardous materials, high angle, confined space, collapse, trench, water, ice and the like. If you think of the number of calls that involve special equipment and training, most of you will admit the chance of responding to a call of this nature is relatively small. However, there is an expectation by everyone – the department, elected officials, and public – that the fire department will be ready to handle any emergency, and do so with great proficiency.

As the economy begins its slow recovery, departments can expect their recovery to take longer. This continues to place a strain on most everyone and mandates that every organization take a closer look at all of the services it provides. This means evaluating the value or cost/benefit of various programs relative to the risks that are presented.

How much energy and resources can you afford to commit to some of the very low frequency events? If you continue to commit to providing for special emergencies, you need to be aware of the impact on the day-to-day needs, the “bread and butter” calls.

More Than ‘Winging It’

Departments have been responding to “special rescue” emergencies forever. Today, standards exist that better regulate the services that are provided to address events that are out of the norm. It seems that only recently efforts have been made to professionalize the response and better prepare to handle these situations. There is much more to a special rescue than getting there and “winging” it. 

The standards, regulations, and policies are fairly prescriptive and are somewhat philosophically different than our approach to fire response. For example safety, equipment and training are more regulated. Whether or not you use your equipment, it must be continually maintained and tested. If it fails, it is replaced.

Different Approaches

Air monitoring equipment is routinely calibrated for accuracy. Ropes must be checked relative to their condition to meet minimal standards or be replaced. Certain protective suits and clothing have shelf lives and are not to be used past this date. This is very different from the fire side of the business where outdated equipment is donated to departments that can’t afford it and the belief is that something is better than nothing.

If you need another example, try this. Do technical rescue/special rescue teams begin operations before they have assembled the minimum amount of resources required for the job? Now ask the same question about the fire ground. I guess you would agree that there are different approaches in most cases.

The specialized equipment required for many of the technical rescue disciplines is expensive and requires special care and storage. For organizations facing significant financial challenges, the decision to maintain what has been initiated can be difficult to make. In order to continue to respond to certain types of calls, the resources must meet the expected level of service to be delivered.


Departments that are unable to meet mandatory standards may need to choose between committing resources to basic necessities and cutting back on capabilities needed to respond to rare incidents. This needs to be a conscious decision that considers all potential ramifications. At some point it may become a policy decision made by those who provide funding to your organization.

Training for specialized rescue is essential to maintain the skills needed to respond to infrequent events. It must be regular, standards-driven and intense. It requires competent instructors and attentive students. This training is difficult, if not impossible, to conduct in-service. The only possible way for that to occur would be in organizations with significant staffing. As a result, the training requires overtime or backfill. This cost contributes to the overall expense of maintaining response capabilities.

There is no doubt that an organization electing to adequately prepare for special rescue scenarios must commit all the resources necessary to perform safely, meet the required standards and be extremely competent to provide excellent service. There does not appear to be any middle ground with this; an organization is either 100 percent in or it is out.

Here are some considerations to help evaluate your programs and involvement with special rescue preparation:

Consider a regional team sharing resources from neighboring departments. There are some good models around the country, saving money and providing great service.

Standardize with other teams and departments. Train together, share resources and purchase in bulk.

Research the standards to check to see what is absolutely mandatory and what is recommended. This can help set the course of your preparation, especially during challenging fiscal times.

Buy only what is needed. While redundancy is often beneficial, it may not be affordable. It is sometimes popular to play the “what if” game that often leads to extra resources.


Review your internal policies and procedures and make sure they match the standards. Occasionally organizations greatly exceed what is mandated. Finances dictate a fair evaluation of what is required.

Consider training that benefits both special rescue and firefighting or other disciplines. If ladders are considered part of a technical rescue scenario, the same core skills are needed for firefighting. The use of ropes can apply across the board.

Do not discard used “stuff.” Even if it can’t be used during an emergency, it may be sufficient for training or other uses. This is not to imply that unsafe equipment should be used in non-emergency situations. Unsafe should not be used under any circumstances.

Have regular discussion with team leaders and explain the challenges created by the economic downturn. Enlist their help in finding solutions.

Marketing and salesmanship are extremely important – both internal to the department and externally to the policy makers. If you wish to maintain technical rescue capabilities, you will need to work to maintain support.

Stick to the hazard potentials in your area – if you don’t have high-rise, swift water or ice, don’t waste resources on them. This sounds rather simple, but there are organizations preparing for hazards that don’t exist in their response area.

Balancing the needs of the department with the funding available has always been and always will be a huge challenge. There is no sin in providing only the services that the community and policy makers are willing to support.

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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