The Value of Special Rescue Teams

There are many outside the fire service who continue to promote statistically based decisions to increase efficiency. Unfortunately, viewing special rescue from this perspective is not practical or feasible.
Richard Marinucci   Richard Marinucci

If you look at the number of events requiring technical rescue-whether a hazmat response, search and rescue, trench rescue, or any other special incidents-and compare this to the cost of preparing for such incidents, it does not make much sense. Statistically, there are not many technical rescue incidents (fortunately for those who require a response), which makes for some challenges convincing those who control the funding.

Another way to put this is to ask the question, “What is a life worth?” Although some may say it is priceless, my boss likes to remind me that we put a price on life all the time through our budgeting process. It is not a conscious decision; I don’t think that policymakers view it this way. They mostly look at the amount of money they receive, mostly through taxes, and apportion the funds as they deem most beneficial to their community. Although most preach that public safety is essential, their actions indicate they do have a limit on what they will spend. This is OK, but rarely is it discussed as bluntly as this.

Unique Skills

The response to unique events still requires those who are dispatched to have knowledge and competence. They need tools. They need to stay current and train. From a purely statistical view, it probably does not make sense to fund this preparation for the typically low run volume to be expected. But as we should all know in this business, we cannot operate and prepare purely on a statistical basis. The challenge is to know the benefits and be skilled in explaining why the investment is important.

A community may ask its technical rescue team to prepare for high-angle, rope, trench, ice, swiftwater, dive, industrial or farm machine, collapse, confined space, and hazmat responses. That is a lot of responsibility to do it properly. Further, organizations that prepare for most, if not all, of the items on this list need people, time, and money. A simple cost/benefit analysis would indicate that this is a losing proposition. To many of the bean counters in government, it doesn’t make sense to make this investment. And the public expects the fire service to be ready for whatever it might face-even if the incidents are rare.

But, public safety doesn’t work that way. Fire service personnel will take whatever they can get and do the best they can. Although this is admirable, it may sometimes create more challenges in that those who control the resources know and understand this and may therefore not adequately provide the needed resources. Then when an emergency occurs, there is an expectation that crews’ capabilities will magically appear. This is one reason to continually fight for the needed resources.

Keep Them Informed

Departments must assess the potential for certain types of incidents to occur. Based on their findings, they need to inform the policymakers of the risk and get as much support as possible to prepare for these events. Special rescue scenarios can be very complicated and have specific requirements. There are mandatory Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and National Fire Protection Association standards that may imply requirements. Regardless, involvement at special incidents requires preparation of personnel to acceptable standards and a cache of equipment related to the duties expected to be performed. Organizations must understand this and make the appropriate investment.

There are various ways to view this challenge and prepare. There are some who choose to ignore the potential, thinking that it can’t happen to them. This is probably not much different than some of our citizens who don’t think they will ever have a fire, so they don’t need a fire department. In these cases, organizations that do not prepare are counting on others to fix their problem in the off chance that they will actually have an event. This seems like a risky approach but one that many policymakers take.

Regional Approach

Organizations that are big enough can invest through their own means to prepare teams to respond. For the rest, it makes sense to pool resources. Many fire departments are not large enough to support special rescue teams alone, both financially and with personnel. In these cases, the most logical approach is to create a regional response where communities contribute in a way that is equitable to all. TThe benefits of this are great as it spreads the cost, much like insurance does, based on a larger risk area. In a larger area, the chances of an incident are greater, and the need to be ready is critical. Use this approach to convince those who control the resources that the “insurance” is important for the greater good.

During challenging budgetary times, it is tempting to look to save money by reducing training for these special events. After all, the chances of one occurring are relatively small from a statistical perspective. It also can threaten regional approaches to teams as some long-time members may reevaluate based on their own history. If they have not used the services of these responders, they may begin to wonder if their investment is worth it. It is at this time that efforts must be ramped up to make sure any consortiums remain.

Establish Value

In many ways, it is about creating value and communicating that value to those who ultimately control the resources. Having specific capabilities is only important if an incident occurs. But when one does, it is very critical to have the right response. As such, one approach to selling a team is to continually reinforce the need by highlighting instances where the teams deployed and produced a positive outcome. In some ways, keeping a team going is more challenging that starting it. New projects create excitement.


How a special response team is funded can determine its success. Everyone involved must make a contribution. This can be through assessments, in-kind service, personnel, or a combination of these. It must be equitable and sustainable. Once a department has established a fair system, it should not be too difficult to see the advantages of joint ventures compared to the cost of an organization going alone. Promote the savings along with the resources that are available for the remote possibility of something happening. Although we may all hope that no one needs the service, there is some comfort in knowing that a level of competence exists.

Organizations and communities should not be surprised if they do not have the capabilities to handle rare events such as hazmat responses or special rescue scenarios. The infrequency of these for most departments makes it easy to overlook this potential. Out of sight, out of mind is not the best approach. It is imperative that fire departments consider the possibilities and have a plan to handle low-frequency incidents. Regardless of how one chooses to handle them, the worst approach is to think that they will never occur. Having resources available and not needing them is much better than being caught off guard. Most people would not think having homeowners’ insurance or auto insurance is not necessary because the odds of something occurring are small. This same line of thinking must be used when establishing special rescue capabilities.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association and 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, 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.

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