Fire Departments’ Most Important Function

Rescue is the most important function of every fire department. From day one in recruit school, firefighters are programmed that life safety is the number one priority. Rescues are situations where firefighters promise their communities that they will endanger their lives to try and save another. It is a job responsibility that requires continual preparation. Two major issues challenge firefighters to be properly prepared: Rescues are relatively rare compared to other job functions for most firefighters; and finding the time to practice is difficult because of increasing responsibilities, minimal staffing, and run volume.

More Than Rescues from Fire

It was not too long ago that mentioning rescue in the fire service meant that someone was saved from a fire. Today, rescue comes in many forms. Besides saving people from the ravages of fire, firefighters are asked to respond to vehicular crashes, some which require extensive extrication of patients; hazardous materials incidents, where people are exposed to chemicals and more; and a host of special rescue scenarios such as swiftwater, ice, high-angle, confined-space, structural collapse, trench, or any situation that requires removing someone from harm’s way. There are some basic premises that apply to all these potential events and some special preparations for the unique challenges that they may present.

Make Sure You Get There

Some of the more basic concepts applicable to all situations involve rescuer safety and preparation. First and foremost, everyone must arrive safely to the scene of the emergency. This means wearing seat belts and driving appropriately. Professionals must also act professionally, remaining calm and thinking about the task at hand. Regardless of the situation, the department must arrive with the proper number of personnel within the right amount of time with the right equipment. Failure to provide the right resources will result in a failed rescue. You must know how many people you need to perform the specific operations to be successful. In today’s world, many organizations are understaffed for some of the situations they will be asked to address. For example, if you were to play a game of football, you would need 11 people. Teams don’t play with fewer. If they did, their chances of winning would be greatly reduced.

The Clock Is Ticking

Time is critical in rescue situations. Fire can spread rapidly, and the window of opportunity to make a difference is narrow. In serious injury crashes, the “Golden Hour” comes into play. Trauma victims need to get to appropriate facilities within a specific time period or face a negative outcome. Obviously those trapped in swiftwater, in the ice, or in a confined space or those exposed to bad chemicals also have a small window of opportunity for success. Perhaps the only rescue situations that aren’t as time-sensitive, though there are limits, are those created in structural collapses. There have been lives saved many days after a building has come down after an earthquake or for some other reason. Fire departments need to understand the need for an adequate response time to the various incidents and must be able to articulate this to those outside of the fire service. Going back to the football analogy, teams have a specific amount of time to get the play started or they get penalized. Rescues are unsuccessful for fire departments that don’t get the “play off in time.”

Have the Right Tools

Successful rescues depend on the right equipment needs. Things such as thermal imaging cameras and self-contained breathing apparatus are priceless when facing a challenging fire rescue scenario. Proper extrication equipment allows for the rapid extrication of crash victims. Each special rescue situation has its own set of tools that is indispensible for successful operations. Departments need to know the types of rescues that they are likely to be called to and acquire a cache of appropriate equipment. The equipment must be maintained and ready at all times. Fire departments cannot predict the time and date of the next emergency. Switching sports analogies, a baseball team is not likely to be successful without the correct bats and gloves. The catcher is not going to get behind the plate with an infielder’s glove on.

Maintain Proficiency

Now that the department has the people in place to respond in the right amount of time with the appropriate equipment, it needs to make sure all members are proficient. This means training to learn the correct way and repetition to ensure that regardless of time, weather conditions, or any other circumstance, proficiency is at a high level. Many things that firefighters do must be second nature. Arriving at the scene of a crash is no time to try to figure out how the extrication tools work. Successful football teams practice all the time. They would think it ridiculous to play a game without knowing the playbook or not adequately practicing their blocking and tackling.

Preparation is essential. Besides having the right people, properly trained, and with the correct equipment for the job, fire departments need to evaluate the potential hazards in their communities. They should do an assessment to determine the types of calls they may get. If you have a river with rapidly moving water, something bad can happen. Those in a cold climate with bodies of water could reasonably expect to respond to an ice rescue. Basically, no department should be surprised that it is faced with a variety of things to address. Communities with senior centers and nursing homes must understand the tremendous challenge they will have should an emergency occur in one of these facilities. Pre-emergency plans must be in place and must be reviewed with all members. You need a game plan for any unusual facility or hazard in your community.

Safety First

Always consider rescuer safety. Rescuers should not become victims. This means departments must consider any hazards that could pose special challenges. For example, firefighters responding to roadway crashes must properly protect their work area so they can focus on the task at hand and not expose themselves to unnecessary risks. Point to lessons learned from special teams called to special rescue situations. Hazmat teams always consider the safety of their team members, as do those in swiftwater, ice, collapse, and all the rest. This is not to imply that there are no risks to be taken. This job is tough enough to accomplish if everything is done right. Eliminate the unnecessary risks to create situations that minimize potential rescuer injuries. Again, to use the football analogy, it is a violent game where injuries occur. Yet it would be ludicrous to go on the field without all your protective equipment.

Preparing for the Infrequent

Preparing for rescues may be the most challenging aspect of the job for most in the fire service. These situations don’t occur frequently in most organizations. Yet, they are why departments exist. Fire departments are committed to doing what is necessary to save those who can be saved when disaster strikes. Successful rescues are based on having properly trained people with the right equipment for the job. Personnel must be extremely competent, as the margin of error in many situations is very slim. Time is a factor. It is not just about response time but also the ability to begin the rescue operation quickly within established safe operating parameters. Departments should honestly assess not only the rescue situations that could occur in their communities but also their capabilities based on people, response, equipment, and preparation.

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

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