When to Rescue, When to Stand By

By Richard Marinucci

As a general rule, firefighters are action-oriented and will try to do something to help a situation even if they are not totally prepared or trained for a particular emergency.

I can recall early in my career, prior to becoming an officer or chief, when my department was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because firefighters performed tasks for which they had not received training. The department was held responsible even though the firefighters acted on their own and were not forced to do anything. The firefighters felt personal responsibility to do something to help. Although no one was hurt, OSHA investigators stated that its rules were violated.

A year or two ago, I recall a department in California being criticized for not attempting a rescue in the ocean because the responders did not believe they had been trained to perform the tasks they had to perform. I am sure this was a difficult decision. The reports from the area indicated that the responders were concerned about the liability they could face for doing something that they were not trained to do. This is a difficult position to place firefighters in based on their desire to help fellow citizens.

Dealing with the Dilemma

These two separate and distinct examples demonstrate the challenges and ethical dilemmas that fire departments, officers, and firefighters face. This may be most evident in the area of technical rescue. Whether it is swift water, confined space, trench rescue, or any of the other disciplines that fall under the banner of special rescue, there is an established set of performance expectations-including protecting the rescuers with standard safety practices. Firefighters may be held to these standards regardless of the incident’s outcome.

Recently I was watching the news, and one of the stories was about a fire department that had successfully rescued a victim from a trench. This piqued my interest. I watched closer to see more of the details. I subsequently read some of the print media accounts of the incident. From what I could tell, the department took some shortcuts and did not meet basic standards for trench rescue. I did not see the cache of lumber that technical rescue teams have available to them, nor did I see any other specialized equipment. Stories from the scene stated that the first-arriving companies immediately began digging and were successful at removing the patient with minor injuries.

Based on my very basic knowledge, established safety practices were disregarded in the interest in time. Let me emphasize that I am in no way being critical of the incident or the actions of the people or attempting to Monday morning quarterback. Perhaps lack of access to a properly trained team that could respond in a timely fashion was a factor in their decision. The outcome was positive, but does that make this action acceptable? Could the department be fined by OSHA even with a positive outcome? The purpose of these questions is to generate discussion before the next incident so that companies take correct actions and do not make critical decisions solely during the “heat of battle.”

Making the Right Call

The rules of engagement for firefighting are not generally as restrictive as the standards of operation for technical rescues. By that, I mean that fire suppression tactics allow for a much more aggressive approach to rescue and fire attack. Even the OSHA two-in/two-out regulation allows for an exception if responders suspect that there are trapped people who can be rescued. There is no explicit exception for technical rescue where standards exist. Therefore, fire departments and firefighters may be subject to more scrutiny regardless of an incident’s outcome. Further, it is possible that enforcing agencies such as OSHA are more aware of these types of calls as there is often broad media coverage.

This places great pressure on fire departments, fire chiefs, fire officers, and firefighters-especially those who arrive first on the scene. Civilians already on the scene expect action, which can lead to decisions outside of policies and standard practices. Although this is somewhat understandable, personnel must consider it long before an incident occurs. All members of an organization must anticipate that at some point they may be asked to perform a special rescue. The organization has a responsibility to prepare its personnel mentally and physically for these types of infrequent but high-profile events.

For example, if you live in a cold weather climate with ponds or lakes, you could reasonably expect to be asked to perform an ice water rescue. If that is the case, your organization needs some tools to do the job, and personnel must receive appropriate training. Although this may seem simple and logical, funding and time constraints come into play. Many departments do not have the equipment or staffing. They may also have difficulty finding the time and expertise to conduct the necessary training. This is not to offer an excuse but to identify the challenges that keep organizations from being prepared.

Some areas of the country have tried to address this by forming regional teams comprising units from several departments. By combining resources, agencies can develop the capabilities to perform special rescues. Although this is generally a good approach, it does not solve all potential problems. Often it takes longer to assemble these specialty teams, which increases response times. When time is critical, first-responding units will be expected to act. So as part of any regional approach, individual companies must be trained on basic tasks they can perform while waiting for specialty teams’ arrival. This training allows first-arriving units to get the process started properly, minimizing the risks to the rescuers. Companies must also have access to basic tools and equipment to start the operation.

Organizations must prepare personnel for any type of emergency they may encounter-within reason. Circumstances can make this challenging, but failure to acknowledge the potential for an incident can place personnel in a very difficult situation. Good organizations anticipate their work and prepare their employees. They must be aware of standards and laws that affect their responses. There is also a level of responsibility for all employees to maintain discipline and follow the rules of operation for special rescues. This can be stressful but is easier if it is considered long before the emergency occurs. Everyone wants to act, but actions should be based on proper training and equipment and established industry standards.

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 a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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