The Chief’s Role in Technical Rescue Safety

Issue 5 and Volume 3.

As the fire chief, you carry the responsibility of making the ultimate decision regarding your department’s ability to respond to and safely mitigate a technical rescue incident, whether it be a high-angle rope, trench, confined space, structural collapse, swiftwater, vehicle/machinery or wilderness operation. Fortunately, an excellent document exists to help you establish your department’s capability, and most importantly, to keep your personnel safe.

NFPA 1670

NFPA 1670: Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents states: “The authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) shall establish levels of operational capability needed to conduct operations at technical search and rescue incidents safely and effectively.” That is, you must decide, based on your department’s actual operating capability, whether you have the staffing, equipment and training to attempt the rescue or if you’re better served keeping the scene safe and calling in reinforcements through mutual aid.

One of the first things you must do is establish specific standard operating procedures (SOPs) based around your department’s capabilities. NFPA 1670 defines those capabilities in three levels: Awareness, Operations and Technician.

All department members should be trained, at a minimum, to the Awareness level. This provides your personnel with enough knowledge, skills and abilities to keep them from getting into a situation they’re unequipped to handle. Remember: Technical rescue incidents are the “high-risk, low-frequency” events Gordon Graham tells us about. They don’t happen frequently, and they carry a high degree of risk for the rescuers. Awareness-level training gives your personnel the information needed to keep them from attempting something that could easily get them killed.

There are numerous ways to obtain Awareness-level training, including online applications, but face-to-face time is well worth the effort. A good option is to arrange for a nearby department that provides technical rescue to host a classroom-based session for your personnel.

If you believe you have enough staffing and equipment to attempt basic rescue operations, consider bringing your department up to the Operations level. This next level builds on the awareness training and gets into the hands-on rescue operations.

Finally, the Technician level means you have the staffing, equipment and training to attempt nearly any technical rescue. NFPA 1670 provides further details on each level and the specific training needed.

General Safety Guidelines

NFPA 1670 also provides general safety guidelines for technical rescue, including the recommendation that your SOPs include specific procedures for evacuation of a work site. This procedure can be any combination of audible warning devices and/or radio signals. Every member operating on site should have knowledge of the actual warning itself and, more importantly, their means of escape.

Lookouts, effective communications, escape routes and safety zones (LCES) will help to make the operation as safe as possible. When establishing safety zones, consider using the hot/warm/cold concept from hazmat. The hot zone for a technical rescue operation should extend 100 feet from the center of the operation, the warm zone extends another 100 feet from the outer edge of the hot zone and the cold zone extends beyond that.

These zones define the level of personal protective equipment (PPE) your personnel must use. One critical part of that PPE is respiratory protection. Operating on a technical rescue incident often requires a lengthy exposure to the elements surrounding the incident. This precludes the wearing of normal firefighting PPE, and departments should provide members with specific rescue-approved PPE, including either a supplied air respirator (SAR) or an approved canister-style filter mask. NFPA 1951: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Technical Rescue Operations provides additional information on technical rescue PPE. These types of safety procedures must be communicated to all personnel operating on scene, typically during a briefing prior to beginning the operation.

Safety officers at a technical rescue event must be familiar with and trained in the actual operation. NFPA 1670 states: “The incident commander shall assign a safety officer with the specific knowledge and responsibility for the identification, evaluation and, where possible, correction of hazardous conditions and unsafe conditions.” For most incidents, you’ll want to assign one safety officer (SO) and at least one assistant safety officer (ASO). The SO is responsible for the overall scene; the ASO is responsible for the rescue site operation. This allows the SO to plan for overall scene safety, including the zones, rehab and crew rotation, while the ASO focuses on the work involved in making the rescue. The ASO should be trained at or above the level of the members operating at the scene.

For extended operations, the SOs should prepare a site safety plan using Incident Command System Form 215A, the incident action plan safety analysis. This document establishes and communicates clear, effective safety objectives and tactics. Along with the incident action plan itself, the safety analysis provides the situational awareness all personnel need to operate safely. Again, this critical information must be relayed to all members before they begin operating.

Rescue Incident Types

Let’s take a look at individual safety issues for four specific technical rescue incidents. Keep in mind this is only a brief list. There are many more considerations you must be aware of; further study into NFPA 1670 and other pertinent documents is required.

Confined Space

  • Sufficient staffing to attempt the rescue. At a minimum, six personnel are needed (this includes the rapid intervention team).
  • Provisions for constant atmospheric monitoring, specifically oxygen content, flammability and toxicity (at a minimum).
  • Positive pressure ventilation where possible.
  • Rehabilitation for rescue crews.
  • BLS support at a minimum; ALS is preferred.
  • Personnel trained in trench and rope operations, at a minimum to the Awareness level, preferably to the Operations level.
  • Operations-level training in hazmat response.
  • Personnel familiar with the confined space entry form.

Structural Collapse

  • Ability to identify specific construction types and their probable reaction in the event of a collapse.
  • Knowledge of the five specific types of collapse patterns.
  • The ability to apply the approved FEMA building marking system.
  • Personnel trained in trench, rope, confined space, water and vehicle rescue operations, at a minimum to the Operations level, preferably to the Technician level.
  • Sufficient staffing and equipment necessary to safely stabilize the structure and perform the rescue.
  • BLS support at a minimum; ALS is preferred.
  • Completion of the incident action plan, including specific safety considerations. All personnel must be briefed on this document prior to the initiation of any operation and at all shift changes.
  • Rehabilitation for rescue crews.

Rope Operations

  • Sufficient staffing to complete the operation safely.
  • Knowledge, skills and ability to manipulate the knots and hitches necessary to complete the operation.
  • Edge protection.
  • Redundant systems for the safety of rescue personnel.
  • Ensuring the anchor selected is sufficient for the operation.
  • Securing the patient in the lifting device.

Trench Operations

  • Sufficient staffing and equipment to complete the operation safely.
  • Recognition of the specific soil types in your response area and their collapse characteristics.
  • Ability to control the utility issues contained within the trench, including shutting down all power, water and gas.
  • Ability to make the rescue area safe, including the use of approved sheeting and shoring.
  • Provisions for constant atmospheric monitoring, specifically oxygen content, flammability and toxicity (at a minimum).


Your personnel depend on you to ensure their safety during any technical rescue operation. In many cases, the best action you can take is to ensure all of your personnel are trained to the Awareness level and they can make the scene safe in preparation for the arrival of trained and equipped technical rescue teams, either through mutual aid or other automatic-aid provisions. This is all part of maintaining your department’s situational awareness, from the fire chief down to the newest firefighter.