Tech Rescue

Leading a Technical Rescue Team

Issue 7 and Volume 6.

Many classes and books discuss how to perform certain tasks during a technical rescue, such as operating hydraulic tools, making a confined-space entry or erecting shoring. But none of those tasks can be carried out successfully if the technical rescue team lacks the proper training and guidance from a highly functional team leader.

In this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare and lead a squad or crew that will be performing technical rescues and how to sustain a technical rescue team. I’ll also offer tips on managing the crew in and out of the hot zone.

How Much is Enough?
When it comes to technical rescue, there’s rarely enough on-the-job training to make someone proficient at it. And since technical rescues are usually high-risk events, training and preplanning are stressed more than usual. Pre-incident assignments are often listed in a department’s standard operating guidelines (SOGs) along with what rescue equipment should be pre-rigged. The pitfall of this or any type of planning is that you may not know when to stop; in other words, you may over-think the plan. To help determine how much preplanning you’ll need to complete as a team leader, consider the following concepts:

1. Level of response: If your jurisdiction includes an interstate highway with heavy vehicles/trucks, prepare for those vehicles to crash into something. This means you should have the tools and training to mitigate those types of incidents. Second, if you haven’t already, develop appropriately trained rescuers and equipment. Size up your current response and perform an area hazard assessment (i.e., review run data on incident types, locations and times of day, and ask your zoning department what construction or developments may be taking place in your community so you can preplan future concerns). Also, see what your neighboring fire departments have put together in terms of response resources so you can more accurately provide mutual aid for one another. One department can prep for swiftwater rescue by buying and maintaining the gear and training personnel, while the other can prep for trench rescue and put together an automatic-aid response dispatch plan.

2. Continuing education: It’s one thing to train and equip a rescue team; it’s a completely different thing to sustain a quality response. Determine how much training your crew has, and how much it still needs. Remember: Training must be ongoing and realistic. Within each training session, introduce opportunities for the students to become teachers. Find ways to continuously encourage the next generation.

3. Communications: An interoperable radio is necessary, of course, but just as important is an interoperable vocabulary. If your team members don’t use the same terms for various types of operations and tasks, you must define commonly used terms (primary search, recon team, division/group, etc.) across jurisdictional lines—and you must do it before you step onto any fire or rescue ground. NIMS training can help with this.

4. Safety: Like many work practices, your crew will be a reflection of you and your values, so remember to lead by example—wear your PPE. You and your team must also learn to anticipate and predict how your work practices will affect operations, particularly when it comes to safety. If hazards can’t be mitigated, you’ll have to change your tactics on the spot. This will require you to know how well your team works when under pressure.

Flexibility Counts
If you’re used to working as a frontline supervisor, but you get assigned to act as a battalion chief managing multiple companies, you must be able to switch gears and wholly serve in that capacity. This means that while you must maintain your knowledge of your crew’s capabilities on scene, you must also stay updated on things such as area resources and equipment that needs to be taken out of service. Important: Don’t let yourself get drawn into more focused tasks, such as handling tools and equipment, because you’ll lose sight of the bigger picture and won’t be in a position to anticipate the next step.

Also keep in mind that if you must be re-assigned while at the scene, your crew will have to rely heavily on the prior training you’ve given them. Of course, the drill field is where your crew will discover your expectations, learn to anticipate your orders, experiment with techniques and hone their tactics, but it’s also where you establish yourself as a leader to be trusted and followed. The more you teach on the drill field, the less you’ll have to do and say during an incident, so if you’re pulled away, your team will have the skills and confidence to carry on.  

Determining the Course of Action
When leading a technical rescue team, remember that you must “slow down to speed up.” In other words, you must size up the problem first. The alternative, rescuing by trial and error, is slow, inefficient and unsafe for everyone. This doesn’t mean you have to stay locked into a course of action, but when you take the time to fully view and assess the problem, you’ll have fewer plan changes and a faster rescue.

That said, assessment can be too much of a good thing if you’re not careful, because you can become overwhelmed by too many good ideas. The goal is to safely treat and extricate the patient so that they can be delivered to a hospital or trauma center (if necessary) within the “golden hour.” To get there, you need input from the crew, but settle on one course of action, communicate it, ensure you have the proper tools/equipment and staff to pull it off, and then put the plan into action, and keep re-evaluating your progress. If you must change your course of action, always keep your plan as simple as possible, as the incident will most likely not require extensive, technician-level skills.

As a crew leader, you’ll likely receive orders in the form of strategic objectives: “Free the victim from the automobile, treat and transport them to the appropriate facility safely within an hour.” But the objectives could be more complicated, such as, “Conduct search and rescue operations north of Maple Street and south of Dorothy Lane until relieved. Provide your own treatment/transport of victims, apply primary and secondary search techniques as you see fit, and document all your work.” No matter their degree of complexity, all assignments are time-sensitive; therefore, your crew’s progress on assignments must be measurable.

Tactical objectives will be more task oriented, such as assigning a firefighter to use hydraulic spreaders to force open a vehicle door to rescue a victim.

Execution & Anticipation
Once the plan is developed, staffed, equipped and communicated, do all you can to make parallel or simultaneous assignments and maintain an orderly, sequential evolution for each. Assign one crew to a cutting station, another to assembling shores and another to hazard identification and mitigation. If done properly, this will limit frustrations on the scene, and you’ll gain credibility with your staff and community.

As team leader, you must remain one to two steps ahead of the action, but don’t limit yourself to thinking solely about which technical task is next, such as the placement of a shore. Other support needs, such as scene lighting and staging a back-up tool, are just as important. To handle all of these needs effectively, you must have a fully trained crew. If the crew isn’t technically competent, you’ll find yourself teaching on the scene, or worse, completing the tasks yourself.

One challenge you must anticipate is a shortage of trained rescuers. Knowing this should motivate you to make contingency plans, which may include mutual aid from a neighboring department. Another way to increase technical rescue know-how when you need it is to use your rescue technicians as force multipliers. Assign one of your rescue techs to a truck or engine company so that they can advise the company of the tasks that need to be completed. This will help your department develop future leaders and decision-makers.

Technical rescue team leaders have a huge responsibility not only to their communities, but to the teams they lead. Without a knowledgeable, experienced, highly trained leader, rescue teams are highly ineffective. To ensure the success of your team, establish the concept of teamwork as a high priority, maintain high safety and performance standards during training and continuously evaluate techniques, tactics and tools.

How lucky we are to be in a position to perform rescues that save lives. Few jobs provide the same level of satisfaction that we find when we lead a crew into and out of danger, and manage to bring a civilian out with us who might otherwise be lost.

Helpful Team Leader Tips

  1. Ensure that someone has stocked up on consumable supplies, such as wood for shoring or reciprocating saw blades, and that all power units and generators are full of gas, with a full back-up can, too.
  2. Ensure that your crew can perform field maintenance and troubleshoot your systems to keep your tools operating and your community protected. (For more on how to operate and troubleshoot hydraulic tools, check out “Power It Up” at
  3. When applying a tool or making a crew assignment, predict what reaction will develop from the action. For example, when using hydraulic spreaders to pop open a smashed car door, you need to know if your prying action is going to force the door against the victim or away from the victim.