By Carl Haddon
Presently being from a very rural fire department in the very rural rocky mountains of Idaho, I have first-hand experience with the challenges of technical rescue operations in a rural setting.
The cold and hard reality is that no matter how much we (as small rural departments) may desire to be all things to all people, we most often don’t have the funding, resources, or staffing to accomplish that task. With that said, exactly what can we or should we do regarding technical rescue operations in the rural setting?
In this part of Idaho, we have the wild and scenic Salmon River, with hundreds of whitewater enthusiasts and fishermen putting drift boats, rafts, and kayaks on the river each year. So, there is a huge potential for swiftwater rescue responses. In the early spring, fisherman flock to the snow- and ice-encrusted banks of the partially frozen river, in search of prized Steelhead Trout. Ice fishing is also very popular on many of our lakes.
U.S. Highway 93 is the main traffic corridor and extends north from North Las Vegas through our area in Idaho, where it runs alongside the Salmon River for many miles and up to Missoula, Montana. We experience dozens of vehicle rescues and potential hazmat situations each year.
Additionally, we have some of the best mountaineering in the country in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. This little part of the Northwest is technical rescue heaven, but our operating budget is $36,000 per year. We have roughly 250 square miles of fire district, three pieces of apparatus, and 12 members. How much can we really do? Sound familiar?
Questions and Answers
With the problem defined, let’s look at some questions to ask to help provide potential answers. First and foremost, given your individual department’s set of circumstances, what types of technical rescue services can it offer? Do you have a solid plan with the ultimate goal of making sure that the risk of providing service is commensurate with the benefit of the outcome? In other words, what technical rescue operations can your department provide safely and effectively? My guess is that many rural departments have been providing various levels of technical rescue operations as part of their standard operating procedures since the beginning of time without even realizing it.
Vehicle rescue and machinery rescue are two common types of technical rescue that most departments provide. Rural fire departments are often located in agricultural areas, where farming and ranching equipment (and the accidents associated with them) are as familiar to them as strip malls are to urban firefighters. Rural departments that have rivers in their response areas are often proficient in some form of water rescue, as the river provides the source of the majority of their responses.
When I first came to this area and onto my first rural volunteer department 10 years ago, we provided no technical rescue services whatsoever. The department didn’t even own life jackets or throw bags for use by the firefighters, when more than 90 percent of our responses involved some interaction with the Salmon River or its tributaries. We have no hydrants and must draft all water on scene. Life jackets, for example were simply not thought of as being a necessary part of department operations because the department had not yet had an accident or (a reported) close call where a personal flotation device (PFD) should have been used. It was the way we’ve always done it.
Overcoming these challenges requires good planning and a global (as opposed to a myopic) viewpoint. What are reasonable expectations of those whom we serve? If we live on a river, it would be a reasonable expectation that the fire department be capable of some sort of water rescue. If a major thoroughfare such as a freeway or highway runs through the district or response area, it would stand to reason that there is an expectation for the department to provide some level of extrication or vehicle rescue. Right?
In most cases, when a rural fire department identifies the need to provide technical rescue services, the transition/addition is one that won’t happen overnight. To say nothing of the training required to become proficient at various elements of technical rescue, there is the planning and budgeting needed for procurement of equipment and oftentimes additional apparatus.
Rescue trucks, trailers, boats, rafts, rope, harnesses, mountaineering hardware, PFDs, throw bags, hydraulic and manual rescue tools, cribbing, struts, shoring, dry suits, wet suits, shoring lumber, and additional hand tools are just some of the items you’ll need to consider. The list goes on and on. For the purposes of this article, I will leave it to the very capable manufacturers of the aforementioned products to help you decide what pieces of equipment and apparatus will best meet your department’s needs.
Where to Begin
With the first step always being the most difficult, where does a department start? My suggestion is with training. Do some research; ask neighboring or friendly departments in similar areas of the country for some referrals on good training. Bring in a qualified instructor or send your members to a reputable program for the appropriate classes. Depending on the age and fitness level of your department’s members, I think you will be surprised at the level of interest in technical rescue training. Firefighters being firefighters, once we gain a level of comfort in something new, the “buy-in” traditionally grows exponentially. Often, with that buy-in comes much needed help with researching various products, equipment, and apparatus available for your specific needs. All things being equal, this process can often be a big morale booster for the members of rural departments.
Even though your department may not presently have the budget to make necessary equipment purchases, having technical-rescue-trained personnel on staff can only help make responses to rescue situations smoother and safer.
The Other Side of the Coin
After looking at the big picture, assessing needs, and addressing budget concerns, your department realizes that it is simply too small, too elderly, and too poor to provide any level of technical rescue beyond that of awareness level. You have established that the need exists, but your department lacks the necessary resources to make it happen. Now what? Where is the next closest available resource? How long will it take it to respond? What can you do in the meantime to at least keep the situation from getting worse?
Often, the answers to these questions are more than frustrating. However, as the old saying goes, it is what it is. My department lives with this very issue on a daily basis. Our closest technical rescue team is at least 22 miles away once it musters; hooks up boat trailers, shoring trailers, and so on; and hits the road. My closest hazmat response team is a minimum of three hours away. With those types of response times, things can go from bad to worse in pretty short order. Our internal technical rescue and hazmat training has to be such that we can deal with these realities. We must train to make the scene as safe as possible and learn to anticipate the possible eventualities of the event such as evacuations, utility involvement, fire control, and unfortunately body recovery operations.
Technical rescue operations can certainly pose a challenge for small rural fire departments across the country. However, with a good plan; good training; good leadership; and, most importantly, good firefighters, the task is certainly most often within reach. The beautiful thing about being firefighters is that when we find that “it” is not within reach, we adapt and overcome.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He serves as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.