The modern fire service has evolved into much more than an agency that responds to fires. Years ago, when called to a non-fire emergency, the fire department responded and did the best they could with what they had available.
They may or may not have had any preparation or appropriate training. They most likely did not have any specialized equipment and improvised with what they had. The only similarity to today’s responses is that they did not happen very frequently, which offered limited or non-existent experience.
As the world in which the fire service operates has changed, the expectations for performance have changed. While there remains limited standards of performance for fire response, requirements for technical rescue situations are more specific and demanding.
Like hazmat responses, technical rescue responses require specialty knowledge, skills and abilities to meet standards and minimize risk, with an emphasis on safety for the responders.
The challenge to the fire chief involves the decision to develop a capable response program to incidents that happen very infrequently and require expensive and technical equipment. Add to this the need for frequent and specialized training and you begin to see some of the components that can become costly to the community and department.
The department and chief need to make a conscious decision to dive into this area based upon the risks presented and the willingness of the organization to support this service. If there is not a plan, a potentially bottomless “money pit” can drain limited resources preparing for low frequency events.
First and foremost, the department needs to determine if it can handle the program with its own resources or if a regional approach is more appropriate. More than likely, with the exception of larger organizations, a consortium approach is more tolerable and likely to allow for a more efficient and effective team.
Not everyone on a single department needs, or wants, to be part of a specialty team that is prepared to handle high angle, water, confined space, ice, collapse or similar rescue situations. Mostly because the frequency of these types of responses are seldom or less, many firefighters do not have the discipline and patience to stay with a rigorous training program that also requires continual education, practice, and research into new and improved techniques.
There usually are a few potential zealots on most departments. These people come with great benefit and possible challenges to the fire department and fire chief. The benefit is that they will throw the necessary effort and energy into the project.
On the flip side, they can be a bit “high maintenance” in that they may be demanding with respect to what their needs are concerning equipment and training. Much of the equipment is specialized, which means it can be costly. The sources of training are not as readily available as fire training, again adding to the expense. Lastly, backfill and overtime costs can escalate quickly. The fire chief must be prepared to address these so that things don’t get out of hand.
There are also specific standards and possible Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates to consider. There may not be much flexibility as to what is required. If you start, there are minimums that must be attained and maintained. You cannot pick and choose. Once the decision is made to engage, then you must get to a minimum point.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to research and learn what is needed. As a result, teams can force unsuspecting fire chiefs into circumstances that may be difficult to control. To counter this, the fire chief has two basic options – take the time to learn all that needs to be learned, or select an individual who is greatly trusted to make recommendations and decisions with consideration to management perspectives.
Beware of the slippery slope. Team members who are very enthusiastic about their new-found vocation will want the best, latest and greatest of everything. They may use any means available to try to convince the decision maker, aka fire chief, to spend money on “fun” stuff.
If the chief has not developed a control mechanism, this team can run uncontrolled, spending limited resources that may be better used on other projects and programs. If the chief is not careful, the “Cadillac” of teams may be built when a lesser model would suffice based upon the risk potential. It is best to have a good understanding as the team is being developed and a set of parameters must be established from the start. Clear objectives need to be communicated and they need to be based upon reality and realistic expectations.
Boredom Can Set In
Maintaining personnel can also be a challenge. Many firefighters are action oriented. If there are not sufficient emergencies to keep up interest in maintaining skills, then turnover and burnout can set in. Even members with the best intentions can lose interest and not want to commit the time and energy necessary to maintain capabilities.
Technical rescue scenarios sound very exciting and challenging. As members start on their training program, they can be very committed. However, if there are not many actual real opportunities, boredom can set in. Further, the initial excitement can wane and the members may not be as interested in the continual training that is needed. Potential members of the team need to understand this as best they can, and the team leadership needs to be conscious of these concerns so things can be done to keep the team functional and competent.
No Blank Check
Equipment can be expensive. Members will want the best, and this is important. However, like everything else that is needed, there are limits. Understand your budget – there is a cost and there is a finite amount of funds. Know what can and can’t be done.
From the very beginning, there must be an understanding that questions will be asked and verification will be needed. There is no blank check. The team will need to educate you so that you are really comfortable with the decisions that are to be made. You will be expected to know enough to make an informed decision.
Remember the “buck” will stop with you, and you will be required to defend decisions and choices, just as you do with the other aspects of your organization.
Editor’s Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department, a position he’s 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.