The fire service has evolved from a service that responds only to fires to a service that provides rescue and resources for just about every crisis imaginable. With such new and varying situations, we are challenged to go against what has been instilled in us as firefighters and rescuers; we must slow down and be more analytical in these responses.
If we’re going to provide technical rescue services in our communities, we must first provide our safety and chief officers with the proper training and resources to successfully mitigate any safety issues on these calls. The place to start: NFPA 1670: Standard Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue, which explains that the local jurisdiction agencies dictate what level of capability they will provide (awareness, operations or technician). Regardless of the level, the safety officer must understand the risks involved and be appropriately trained to avoid mistakes.
Following are some general guidelines that can be used for all types of technical rescue incidents, as well as others that are specific to particular disciplines.
- Assign a safety officer at all technical rescue events. This should be done immediately and in accordance with standard operating guidelines and preplans for these types of events.
- Lock out and tag out all equipment, including heavy equipment for construction sites, electrical panels, appliances and any other type of equipment that needs to be disabled.
- Establish safety zones. Treat all technical rescue scenes like a hazardous materials incident. Set up hot, warm and cold zones.
- Wear and use all appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including clothing, breathing apparatus, head protection, eye protection and any other equipment and clothing dictated by the incident.
- Use the incident command system, including NIMS. This creates accountability of personnel, resources and assignments.
- Maintain solid, clear and concise communications—this goes for everyone on scene.
- Establish personnel rehabilitation. Technical rescues can be just as demanding as a working fire. Weather, duration of work and scope of work will dictate the demands on the rescuers, and rehab personnel should be made aware of possible incident-related health issues. Staging ALS-trained personnel on scene is a best practice.
- Call for additional resources early. The call could last for hours, and we need to get crews in place early for a successful and expedient rescue.
Certain safety considerations are discipline-specific. In some situations, the safety officer will find it difficult to be close to the actual rescue site due to space, air quality and/or remoteness/accessibility. In those instances, communication is key. Following are some discipline-specific items that need to be addressed during technical rescue incidents.
- Have the appropriate equipment. And don’t guess! We must know exactly how much rope is needed, for example. Do we have enough hardware? Do we have adequate anchors? Conduct a methodical evaluation of the situation and your resources so you know if you’re appropriately matched.
- Always build a back-up into any system. And plan as if the first system will fail.
- Deploy the right rescuers for the job. We must put the experts in place to perform the tasks that they’ve been trained for. Are they proficient with knots, systems, patient-packaging, edge protection and troubleshooting unexpected problems?
- Air monitoring is a necessity and must be ongoing during the rescue.
- Have an adequate air supply. If there isn’t adequate air on the scene, wait for it to get there. Again, get resources on the way early.
- Secure devices to ventilate the confined space. This does not eliminate the need for supplied air. Also, know where the vented air is going; we don’t want to contaminate a new area.
- It’s optimal that personnel be proficient in ropes, hazmat and ALS care. This will speed set up of lowering systems and dealing with dangerous products.
- Air monitoring must be ongoing.
- Ventilation is desirable to circulate fresh air.
- Personnel must be proficient in the appropriate FEMA marking systems. This prevents duplicate searches and inefficient use of resources.
- Personnel should be able to identify the materials used in each type of building and their uses.
- Have the proper tools and equipment. Shoring and breaking take a lot of resources, personnel and supplies, and the efforts will take longer if we don’t get ALL resources to the scene early.
- Air monitoring must be ongoing, especially for products found in underground pipes. There could be flammable gases that require utilities to shut off valves. Consider underground electric services.
- Call for resources early. This may include calling for specialized equipment, such as a vacuum and/or building supplies.
- Create a safe work area—the three zones—to prevent further collapse. We don’t want to make the site worse than it was when we showed up.
- Personnel should be trained in rope, confined space and structural collapse to help speed the rescue efforts.
- Understand and be able to identify soil types. Although it may not be necessary to name the specific type of soil, understanding the visual properties is a must. We need to know the difference between hard and soft soils and the challenges presented by each.
- Follow the general guidelines listed above.
- Personal flotation devices (PFDs) must be worn by all rescuers within 15 feet of the water/ice.
- Don’t wear turnout gear near the water.
- Avoid entering the water/ice if possible.
- Call resources early and set up rehab.
With all technical rescue incidents, in order to enter the “hot zone,” we must be trained to a technician level. The safety officer must ensure that the properly trained personnel are acting in their respective roles. Further, the safety officer must keep in mind the “big picture” and not get tunnel vision.
The considerations listed here are just the basics. Safety officers must continually train on the dangers of technical rescue. The world around us is constantly changing, and the number of dangers presented to firefighters and responders increases daily. We’re tasked with being ready and keeping our people safe no matter what the incident is—and that is no small task!