Technical Rescue: Is Your Department Prepared?

Nov. 8, 2004
The fire service continues to try to serve the public in whatever way they can because firefighters are resourceful people. The problem that occurs is when well-meaning individuals (and organizations) try to take on a voyage without having a map.
The question I ask is this: Is your department prepared to conduct technical rescue operations? According to the Fire Service Needs Assessment Survey , conducted jointly by the USFA and NFPA in December 2002, only 11% of surveyed fire departments agreed that they (using their local, trained personnel) could handle a technical rescue with EMS at a structural collapse of a building with 50 occupants. This agreement is not so unusual; a structural collapse of that magnitude requires a substantial number of resources not internally available to the majority of the nation's fire departments. The distressing fact is that according to the survey, only 19% of the departments had a written agreement to direct the use of non-local resources. In other words, despite the fact that 89% of the surveyed departments felt that the described situation was beyond their local abilities, less than one-fifth of the surveyed departments had agreements in place to manage the incident if one occurred.
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These days, the community expects more from the Fire Service than just the delivery of fire suppression assets. Even in the days prior to 9/11/01, fire service personnel were engaged in terrorism consequence management as a result of expertise developed through "everyday" HAZMAT and US&R response. And although we as firefighters want to be everything to everyone, the realities are that most of America's fire departments continue to do so with no more funding than they had before, and staffing fully-equipped special teams don't come without a price. It should be apparent that outside of most urban centers it is difficult to defend the development of internal special teams to exclusively handle technical rescue; call volume (or potential call volume) is not sufficient to justify the cost, especially when we realize that the risk of not forming those teams is outweighed by our need to provide more basic services. It seems that the logical solution would be to at least have a written plan in place for outside resources when the situation arises.

Another of the questions asked in the survey was whether or not departments considered technical rescue within the scope of their organization. According to the survey, 44% of departments said no, mostly in smaller communities. However, even including departments protecting fewer than 2,500 civilians, over 55% replied that they currently do provide technical rescue service. By looking at that information, it's easy to see that some fire service agencies are conflicted as to whether or not they are handling these types of emergencies at all. A while back I wrote an article on Awareness Issues in Special Operations for this e-magazine and in it I referred to NFPA 1670 , where it is stated:

"Each agency with the responsibility to respond to technical rescues shall establish levels of operational capability needed to conduct operations at technical rescue incidents. These capabilities are based on a community hazard analysis, risk assessment, training level of personnel, and availability of internal and external resources. Furthermore, agencies are required to establish written standard operating procedures consistent with one of the following operational levels:

(a) Awareness. This level represents the minimum capability of a responder who, in the course of his or her regular job duties, could be called upon to respond to, or could be the first on the scene of, a technical rescue incident. This level can involve search, rescue, and recovery operations. Members of a team at this level are generally not considered rescuers.

(b) Operations. This level represents the capability of hazard recognition, equipment use, and techniques necessary to safely and effectively support and participate in a technical rescue incident. This level can involve search, rescue, and recovery operations, but usually operations are carried out under the supervision of technician-level personnel.

(c) Technician. This level represents the capability of hazard recognition, equipment use, and techniques necessary to safely and effectively coordinate, perform, and supervise a technical rescue incident. This level can involve search, rescue, and recovery operations.

If you consider that when someone calls your PSAP, if your organization responds it should seem obvious that your organization is considered a "responder" to technical rescue incidents. As a result, your organization is directed to identify the level of service you plan to provide and plan for it accordingly, even if that means saying "we can't handle this" and calling another provider. Furthermore, if that is your plan, it should be in writing and everyone, from the back-seat firefighter to the Chief of Department should be aware of the plan and know how to implement it. That's part of what is considered Awareness Level response to a technical rescue incident.

Determining that you need technical rescue assets and realizing that you don't have the internal resources does not rule out the possibility of providing a service to your community. There are several existing models of technical rescue service delivery and only one of them is the option of doing it yourself. In medium to large departments, this is often the first method looked at, the easiest to gravitate toward, and usually the most costly. Other options exist. Your department could enter into a formal agreement with a department with sufficient resources, if you have one nearby. That's fine if you have that resource nearby, but even then, that department may not see a pressing need to address your community's unique needs as being high on their priority list since their needs come first.

You may try to exercise your sphere of influence and implement a state team, but as those of us who are involved in those endeavors can testify, rescue is seen as largely a local issue, despite the facts to the contrary. When the governing bodies of your state are looking for budgets to trim, these initiatives are often the first to go by the wayside. Although it should seem logical that most disasters of this magnitude impact more than just the locality, that logic doesn't seem to be solving your immediate problem.

Of course, you could pursue a regional model; these are great for many reasons, but often, jurisdictional boundaries and norms interfere with the smooth implementation of these programs. The benefits, though, often outweigh the negatives if you prepare and plan accordingly.

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Any time an effort is made to develop response teams, the level of commitment (to equip, staff, and train a team) to handle these situations will be the hardest hurdle to clear. Obviously the extent to which you develop your team should coincide with your needs assessment, but even then, in many cases no one team is going to run enough alarms to justify the expenses of starting, equipping, and maintaining a team. However, by sharing the load, the team gets more alarms over a greater area, and the cost is more justified because it covers that many more customers. The key, of course, is that each department must be willing to sacrifice a little in order to gain a lot. Contributing a dozen employees on a regular basis for training and deployments may seem like a sacrifice when they're not at your department that shift, but in the long run, those people might all be coming to your place of employment some day soon; Thus the benefit of reciprocating agreements.

If you plan to create a regional team, there are some obvious downfalls, most of all the loss of personnel to team training and events from time to time. Another downside is the perception that project implementation is always easier if you do it your own way. That's true; there's one way, no bickering, no management by committee, and you would think, no heartburn. Unfortunately, if you could do it all yourself, you probably wouldn't be reading this article. Cooperation, although it seems like it might take a little longer, is advantageous because you can utilize the strengths of the involved organizations to your community's benefit.

Because often special team members are going to be the same hard-charging types who sign up to be on the Dive Team, the US&R Team, the HAZMAT team, and so on, some rules for play need to be discussed in advance. If a big event occurs, your own organization may be behind the eight-ball early on in the incident. A good recommendation is to establish some caveats in your plan to provide for such contingencies. In the South Carolina US&R Program, we placed a statement in each member's Memorandum of Understanding that reaffirmed if the member's home department was affected by the disaster, they would not be activated for deployment, but instead remain with their department for their use. Perhaps you can establish that if the event occurs within your mutual aid area, the home jurisdiction handles Command and Control, the next-in department handles Search and Rescue, the second due handles HAZMAT, and so on. A little creativity and a pre-established plan will go a long way toward smooth and comprehensive operations.

Obviously, if your whole team is spread over several jurisdictions, there will be more area to cover. Often times, there are "non-players" between the participating agencies (and realistically, none of the "players" want to locate the equipment in those areas) so the equipment has to be kept on ONE side or the other of the coverage area. Several ways of solving this dilemma could be utilized; consider the use of tiered response to alarms.

Consistency of service delivery always seems to be the biggest problem associated with regional teams. Just because we your department does things one way, it doesn't mean the other departments are going to see things the same way. The best way to combat this issue is to cooperatively establish enforceable standards. Be precise in what your team will do for given situations from response, to checking apparatus, to operating on scenes. However, you think we'd all know this by now- Don't make rules you aren't prepared to enforce. Develop Memoranda of Understanding that spell out the expectations for the regional team, the sponsoring jurisdiction, and personnel involved, and enforce them when necessary.

The fire service continues to try to serve the public in whatever way they can because firefighters are resourceful people. The problem that occurs is when well-meaning individuals (and organizations) try to take on a voyage without having a map. If your department is sincere about doing the job, even if there isn't an ability to handle technical rescue with in-house personnel, there are things you can do to make things work if disaster comes calling. There are keys to success in regional team development:

  • Sharing responsibilities and ideas with neighboring departments. Develop a governing council (or program management group, whatever you want to call it), but settle on ultimate authority and move the program forward.

  • Spreading your talent; if your department has a problem with too many "cross-over" members (multiple team participation) consider entering into mutual aid agreements with OTHER regional teams. Your personnel will benefit from the continued exposure to different rescue disciplines, and they can provide a service to other communities who may not necessarily have similarly talented personnel.

  • Instituting tiered response protocols. Not only do most of these calls get handled at an operational level anyway, but having "farm teams" provide prime opportunities to recruit, to get help, and to train others so they don't muck things up.

  • Establishing standards- Establish clear policies and procedures, enforce them, and provide the training. Guide, then evaluate responders to insure consistency. Develop MOUs that spell out the expectations and enforce them when necessary.

Regional teams can go a long way toward solving the needs of departments who can't afford to implement exclusively operating teams. Consider that even if your region opts to handle technical rescue on an Operations Level and secure the assistance of a State or Federal team for more complicated events, you are still doing so much more for your community than standing by and hoping the problem goes away on its own.

1 Fire Service Needs Assessment Study. Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Fire Protection Association. December 2002.2 NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents, 1999 edition.

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