One of the basic functions performed by fire service organizations is the rescue of trapped victims. These entrapment situations can include routine emergencies such as vehicle accidents or more infrequent scenarios such as confined space incidents, water rescue situations, or building collapse events. Every jurisdiction is routinely faced with managing automobile entrapment situations and are typically organized and staffed to manage these events effectively. However, many departments are not adequately trained or equipped to successfully mitigate more technical rescue incidents such as a construction site trench collapse or a structural collapse caused by a tornado strike.
So how does a response organization prepare to meet the demands of these rescue scenarios? The formulation and outfitting of an adequate response team is the obvious answer, but how do we build the team? Successfully developing a rescue team is a daunting task that involves assessing the potential problems, identifying mitigation requirements, analyzing staffing options, identifying equipment and apparatus needs, writing procedures, instituting a well crafted training plan, and committing to full time project management.
The first step in team development is to identify what the core team functions and capabilities will be. This is accomplished by identifying the jurisdictional problems through a rescue target hazard assessment within the community. These target hazards typically fit into one or more of four different categories; industrial, construction, transportation, or environmental.
Industrial target hazards are typically fixed facilities such as sewage or water treatment plants, manufacturing plants, surface mining facilities, or petroleum storage yards. The related rescue problems at these sites would include confined space entry, high angle rope usage, and machinery entrapment.
Construction target hazards are going to be non-fixed problem sites such as building construction sites, roadway construction sites, and underground utility placement. The common rescue problems at these locations may include trench or structural collapse, confined space entry, high angle rope events, and patient access problems, (such as at the top of a tower crane).
Transportation target hazards are fixed and non-fixed such as highways, railroad and mass-transit facilities and right-of-ways, and airport complexes with their associated flight paths. The associated potential rescue problems are the obvious ones of vehicle and machinery entrapment.
The environmental category of rescue target hazards include natural settings such as rivers, lakes, or beachfront, where water and ice rescue will be a concern. In addition mountainous or rocky terrain where rock climbing is prevalent will require high angle rope rescue techniques and wilderness skills for successful mitigation. The environmental category also includes consideration of prevalent weather patterns and there potential to cause rescue problems such as winter storms, tornados, hurricanes, or earthquakes. All of these weather related environmental situations might cause structural collapse rescue problems.
In addition to identifying target hazards in the response area, a needs assessment should also look at past history to identify frequent rescue problems. What kinds of rescue events has the organization been faced with in the past? What problems were encountered? What types of resources were required for a successful outcome? What could have been done better? Of course this will only be effective if adequate and accurate documentation has occurred during past events, and if the agency was honest in its performance evaluations.
If the organization does not have good documentation of their own past events, reviewing case histories from other departments with similar target hazards will help to identify needs. Case studies can be gathered from sources such as the National Fire Academy, OSHA, NIOSH, or fire/rescue periodicals. The goal of case history review is to identify common problems, mitigation requirements, resource needs, and incident management requirements.
With the needs assessment step complete managers will be able to get a better understanding of the mitigation problems related to rescue events. The needs assessment will identify hazard control issues as well as overall incident control issues. An example of these would be control of energy sources at an industrial confined space incident, (hazard mitigation), and technical expertise resource needs, (overall incident control).
From the needs assessment information, organizations can identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to control various potential rescue incidents. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has produced guidance in this arena through its standards 1006-Rescue Technician Professional Qualifications, and 1670-Operations and Training at Technical Rescue Incidents. These standards are excellent resource documents that identify organizational requirements for rescue operations (1670) as well as individual job performance requirements for rescuers (1006).
Identifying the incident mitigation requirements, determining the operational standard that the agency will perform at, (NFPA awareness, operations, technician), and recognizing the job performance requirements needed for a successful outcome, will give guidance for planning the training needs of the rescue team members. For example, lets say that a fire department recognizes that a sewage treatment plant in their area will pose confined space rescue problems and that potential atmospheric hazards will be present. The fire department must decide what operational standard they are going to perform at. Will they make entry to perform a simple rescue or will they attempt non-entry rescues only and wait for help from a mutual aide rescue team? Whichever decision the agency makes, to enter or not to enter, will then drive the decision of what job performance requirements the rescuers need to be trained to.
Another purpose of knowing the incident mitigation requirements is to identify tool and equipment necessities. For example, if we identify from our needs assessment that a probable rescue scenario is related to public works employees overcome by methane gas while working in underground utility vaults, we can conclude that safe entry and removal of victims and rescuers is a valid incident mitigation requirement. From this information we also will determine that a tripod and winch, or rope retrieval equipment will be an equipment requirement for successful management of this event.
Many decisions about the development of a rescue team will need to be made by management at the executive level, strategic planning level, or by those in control of the purse strings. These same people will also in most cases not have time to get into the fine details of the day to day operations of the team. This situation creates a major disconnect between grassroots team development needs and the needs of top level managers who need clear, concise information to make judgement decisions where money, staffing, and policy decisions are required. A full time project manager is required to overcome this problem and to act as the conduit between users and decision-makers.
The project manager can be a single person, but in most cases this position will function more effectively through a committee process. Many issues need to be addressed at the team development and management level including equipment procurement, written procedures, staffing, and training. It is obvious that broader input is needed at this level to assure adequate information, more effective problem solving, and user buy in of decisions and policies. Some fire departments use focus groups or steering committees made up of rescue team officers, apparatus drivers, and other end users for this management process.
The project manager or project management group will be responsible for keeping upper management informed on team issues. The project manager will make recommendations on staffing levels, submit standard operating guideline suggestions, and recommend response protocols. The project management function will develop budgets, act as technical advisory to upper management, supply input for strategic policy decision making, and make recommendations on the purchase or use of new equipment.
One of the recommendations that the project management team may be responsible for is developing a staffing plan for the rescue team. The plan will include identifying such things as the level of training required, the make up of the staff assigned to the unit, will it have an officer position assigned as part of minimum staffing, and how will the team members be alerted to a rescue event.
Several different options may be considered, and the decision on how you will staff a rescue team will be based on an organizations own deployment standard and budget allocation. Various staffing options exist such as on call, full time staffing, or decentralized versions.
On Call Personnel may consist of trained personnel who can be alerted through a pre-established communications system and are activated when a rescue event occurs. Minimum staffing requirements are pre-identified and personnel are requested to respond to an event to fill staffing requirements as needed. An example of this system is the current FEMA USAR response system.
Full Time Staffing is another option. There are a variety of systems that can be used here. These systems vary from full time staffing of a single specialty rescue unit such as a heavy rescue company, or having specially trained personnel decentralized to various fire stations to allow for wider coverage and a more rapid response of at least some initial advanced rescue capabilities. A centralized unit that responds with higher capabilities can then augment these de-centralized units.
The decentralized approach may allow for a tiered response plan where some of the personnel are trained to operate at a medium range operational level and assigned to truck companies, while a few others are trained to a higher technician level and assigned to a specialized response vehicle.
Mutual aid agreements or contracts with outside resources are another option. Some departments may not have the staff or the budget to support a full time rescue team that is capable of handling various rescue problems. In this situation, the organization can decide to prepare to mitigate certain rescue problems such as vehicle entrapment, and then to depend on outside resources or mutual aid assistance to mitigation more technical events such as a building collapse.
In order for any team to operate effectively it must have a clear understanding of what the rules are, what the team objectives are, what the team is responsible for, and what the team limitations are. Managers inform and guide the team through the development of written procedures. These may take the form of standard operating guidelines, response protocols, or operating manuals. These written procedures are needed to make sure everyone is operating consistently and to assure clear direction on what the performance standard is for the agency. These documents will be used not only to give guidance to operational response teams, but also as training material when developing lesson plans.
Standard operating guidelines for rescue operations should be written to address the requirements of incident mitigation in a chronological order. This would include incident assessment requirements, hazard mitigation requirements, scene control issues, and operational guidelines for various response units.
Additional written procedures that may be required would include mutual aid agreements with neighboring jurisdictions who may request assistance for your rescue team, and written memorandums of agreement between various governmental or private sector agencies for use of their rescue assets.
An example of this type of written memorandum of understanding would include an agreement between a city fire department and a local industrial plant for the fire department to supply confined space standby teams for the plant so that they can meet OSHA 1910.146 confined space entry requirements. In this situation the fire departments involvement must be clearly written and clearly understood.
Equipment and Apparatus
As mentioned earlier, the first stage of development of a rescue team is to perform a needs assessment to determine what rescue problems may occur within the agencies response area. One of the end results of this assessment will be to determine equipment and apparatus requirements. This step of the team development process is a very important phase that should not be taken lightly. Many teams have spent a great deal of money and time purchasing tools and equipment that were not needed, ineffective, or outdated. This step in team development is one where you should take the time to consult others who have been down this road.
A good beginning step in equipment procurement is to first identify what functions are needed to complete a given rescue problem and then identify various alternative tools that will accomplish that function. For example, we know that building collapse operations will require rescue teams to breach through structural components and building contents. This breaching function will take the form of cutting, chiseling, sawing, burning, or battering. The goal is to identify the various optional tools that will accomplish the required functions, compare performance of the various tools supplied by vendors, identify the ones that meet your budget, and then talk to other departments that have already purchased those tools for recommendations.
Many times tools and equipment that look good in a simple demonstration do not hold up or perform well under real life conditions. I remember a department purchasing several radio communications systems, (for a lot of money), with the intention of using them in confined space rescue applications. They found out latter from a company technician, (after the purchase), that they were not designed to be used in wet conditions, say like a sewer system! Needless to say when it comes to buying specialized equipment, there are a lot of white elephants sitting around out there collecting dust because limited research was done prior to purchase. If a vendor will not let you use and assess their products under real life conditions, beware.
Many departments do not have the budget to support the purchase of expensive specialized rescue equipment such as supplied air breathing apparatus or search cameras. This is where time should be spent looking for local funding options such as public-private partnerships or fund drives for equipment donations. There are many case studies of public-private partnerships working very successfully across the country.
I have seen examples of construction tools and rescue equipment being donated to fire departments by hardware stores and individual tool vendors, and local community clubs managing fund drives for equipment purchases. One source of equipment utilization that may not be obvious but is a valid option is the use of tools and equipment owned by industrial emergency response teams. For example, a community fire department may not have the budget to purchase confined space rescue equipment, but the local steel plant in their response district may already have this equipment for its own use. Properly constructed memorandums of agreement may make this equipment available if the fire department requested it.
Life Cycle Issues
The initial planning, development, and implementation of a rescue team, or any type of a team, will be a challenging but rewarding task. Assessing existing department capabilities, identifying equipment needs, making comparisons between various options, conferring with other existing teams, and maintaining records are just a few of the required development tasks.
However, as rescue teams evolve, the focus of project management will change from initial development issues to long term team maintenance. The success of the initial development of the rescue team should be easy to measure if development benchmarks have been set. For example, once a decision has been made on tool, equipment, and apparatus purchase, the budget approval and item purchases will act as measurements of success. The staffing and deployment plan can be measured by having the personnel trained and assigned to the rescue team, and mobilization of the team measured through actual events or through training scenarios.
But, once the team is up and running and development goals have been reached what’s next? Can we then just leave the team to flounder on it’s own? What happens as the team membership ages and we start to lose experienced personnel through attrition? These issues are known as the “graying” of the rescue team and will require the project manager to take team maintenance actions.
In order to maintain operational readiness the rescue team project manager needs to forecast future needs. These needs typically fall into the categories of human resource development, and operational currency. The human resource development needs are all training related. We know that, as the team ages we will eventually lose talented and experienced team members. As the team ages, many of the team personnel who initially could function in difficult rescue environments such as collapse voids, confined spaces, or hanging off the end of a rope, may not be quite as effective physically in these situations as they age. There are certain rescue functions where young, strong, and flexible are a must.
In addition, personnel who have gained valuable experience in command positions will be lost due to retirements, promotions, or disinterest. It therefore is important to continually plan to move the team forward into the future. How do we do this? There are several things that must occur. These include officer development for those team members who will eventually move up into management positions and continuing education programs for existing team members to maintain skill levels. As the team ages and team members gain experience it will be important to challenge these senior team members so that they do not lose interest. This can be done through well-planned training classes with incrementally more difficult problem solving exercises, and to involve them in the training of younger less experienced team members.
In order to assure that the rescue team remains state of the art, we will also need to continually measure its capabilities, and evaluate changes in trends in the field of rescue. Benchmarks should be established for team operations such as standard operating guidelines, and/or time parameters for accomplishing given tasks. These should be used to evaluate the team capabilities through an annual team evaluation exercise. These evaluations will be worthwhile in identifying the need to adjust training curriculum, change procedures, implement different management processes, or procure better equipment.
Technology will change over the life of the rescue team. New tools and equipment will be introduced to improve the way we do the rescue business. This has already been seen with the introduction of technical search devices, concrete chain saws, and various hydraulic rescue tools. Procedures will also change as new information is gathered from actual incidents that occur locally, across the country, or around the world. The project management plan should include a process to occasionally review how we do business and to evaluate new equipment that may improve rescue operations. This is referred to as maintaining operational currency.
The management of a rescue incident can be a daunting task. Trench collapse rescues scenarios and confined space rescue incidents requires a combination of special equipment and properly trained personnel. A building collapse event, such as that caused by a terrorist action, will require multi-agency involvement, significant resource management, unified command operations, and long term planning.
Chief officers tasked with emergency planning will soon recognize the need for fire/rescue departments to have some level of rescue capability. The assessment of potential target hazards will identify the hazards that will need to be controlled during an emergency event. Chief officers will be able to use information gleaned from the assessment to plan staffing, equipment, and standard operating requirements. A strong project management plan must be in place to first determine the actual rescue team focus, to assure support from top management, to assess team effectiveness, and to anticipate life cycle changes that will occur.
Developing Rescue Teams