Planning and executing a viable and appealing training program is a daunting task. Funding and time are always in short supply and generating interest in the same old, routine subjects can be difficult. One way to counteract this is to work with agencies outside your department to conduct and support your training. These agencies offer much in the way of training opportunities and support. Unfortunately, there are many pitfalls that come with these agencies as well. Coordination needs are complicated and constant. Uninformed, mistrustful superiors must be educated to the possibilities and realities of working with other organizations.
In today's fire-rescue service, I doubt that there are many departments that haven't worked out a training or operational MOU (Memorandum Of Understanding) with other emergency response agencies. Most of us understand that we are responding together and we must train together. In New Orleans, we have opened our special operations training (rope/confined-space rescue and the like) to law enforcement, medical responders and fire service agencies from several jurisdictions in our area. The biggest challenge has been making initial contact with these organizations. We use personal contacts, professional contacts, the Internet, written documents and word of mouth to promote joint training. We conduct joint water-rescue training (obviously a high priority in our area) with the New Orleans Police Department, New Orleans Emergency Medical Services and fire departments from other jurisdictions on a regular basis. New Orleans EMS has helped us teach our first responder course to our recruits, which has ramped up the course considerably. The largest and most obvious advantage of conducting this joint training is that it breaks down the barriers between the services. We have found that there are not a whole lot of walls between the street guys anyway, but those that are left come down pretty quickly when we all sit down at the same table and start to plan something that will benefit us all. One of the biggest advantages is that we make contacts, forge bonds, build bridges and open up a whole world of possibilities. I have rarely run into a problem so difficult that it couldn't be solved by contacting a friend in another agency with a different outlook, and an additional set of strategies, tactics and logistics to bring to bear.
One emergency response organization not to be overlooked is the U.S. Coast Guard. When the New Orleans Fire Department received 18 boats from the Leary Foundation, we had to come up with a training program for the crews. We went to the USCG Auxiliary, a volunteer adjunct to the active-duty Coast Guard that does everything the active-duty guys do except law enforcement. We turned their America's Boating Course into a surface boat rescue course. We have our people swim 50 meters in their duty uniforms (to ensure that no one goes into the water who cannot get themselves out of trouble), conduct several life vest drills, several water entry drills, and what I like to call "death by power point," on day one. On day two, we get out on a local lake and conduct navigation drills, man-overboard drills and person-in-the-water recovery drills. We also work with the active-duty side of the Coast Guard house. We have arranged with the local Coast Guard to conduct regular helicopter operations training and are conducting search and rescue (SAR) training days with the local active Coast Guard station. The result has been several "call outs" with the Coast Guard for SAR missions, as we add some depth to their lake searches by being able to get our 18-foot flat boats a lot closer to shore than their bigger boats. On one of these missions, our brothers in the Jefferson Parish East Bank Fire Department got a couple of saves.
Don't disregard the rest of the military, either. I spent 20 years in the Army and found it to be quite different from the Hollywood view. I found the Army to be non-insular, willing to work with anyone who shows a willingness to break some sweat. The military has a fantastic amount of resources, invented the Incident Command System (ICS) (or at least stole it from the Germans) and are addicted to training. If you've got a military base anywhere near you, it would be highly worth your while to go out and make contact with them and see what they'd like to do in the way of joint training.
Industry can bring a lot to the table, and we can reciprocate. Whatever industry you have in your area can provide you with some of the toughest training sites around; real-world sites that you may have to respond to someday. On the other hand, the confined space rescue standby guys charge an arm and a leg to respond to these sites. We in the emergency services can act as the "standby" crew for our industrial neighbors provided we meet certain standards outlined by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). CFR 1910.146(k)(2)(iv) states that to qualify as an emergency response team, we must train on-site annually. This satisfies both sides of the house; industry gets an inexpensive standby team and the emergency responders get some great training. I know of several agencies that have approached the industrial groups that they provide emergency response teams to and have received replacement equipment from these groups at a minimal cost compared to what it would cost to pay for one of the expensive stand-by teams.
We in New Orleans have built excellent relationships with some of our local companies. We approached a concrete manufacturer, Hanson Pipe & Precast, to see if it would let our urban search and rescue (USAR) team use some of its excess concrete for training. Three years later, after holding monthly training sessions at Hanson, and after holding an LSU 80-hour Structural Collapse Technician class at Hanson, we feel we have a fantastic relationship with them.
We have a serious problem in New Orleans. We are rebuilding New Orleans East after Katrina, an endeavor which involves a great deal of trench digging. We have had several trench collapses and would like to retrain our heavy technical rescue squads on trench rescue, but our soil is so evil that two recent LSU trench classes were canceled due to collapses during training. Hanson offered us six eight-foot high, U-shaped culverts with which to construct an intrinsically safe trench rescue-training aid. They moved the culverts, placed them, surrounded them with dirt, added a 10-foot-by-10-foot concrete box with a specially cast cover for confined space training and added concrete tubes with slabs in between them for our USAR training. Then they surrounded it with dirt and are now looking for some sod to finish it off. All of this has been motivated by a true public spirit; they have asked for nothing in return.
Whatever your training level, you can always improve by working with outside agencies. Whether they are fellow fire departments, agencies from other disciplines, the military or civilian entities, you can do nothing but gain by working with people who can broaden your horizons, open doors for you and build major bonds that can become important assets during major (and minor) incidents.
RUEL DOUVILLIER is a captain in the New Orleans, LA, Fire Department, where he has served for 11 years, most of it with Special Operations. He also is the task force leader of Southeast Louisiana Task Force 1 (SELA TF-1), a Type III urban search and rescue (USAR) team. Douvillier served for 20 years in the U.S. Army as a medic, infantryman and paratrooper and five years as a paramedic with New Orleans Emergency Medical Services.