Implementing and Maintaining an Effective Technical Rescue Team

“Doing more with less” seems to be the motto of the fire service these days. As professional firefighters, we have never been asked to respond to more types of calls, perform more inspections, complete more administrative duties—and the list goes on. As we leave the world of responding primarily to fire calls and enter the realm of an all-hazards responder, we find our time more and more precious. So, how can we then add technical rescue on top of the medical, fire, hazmat, auto extrication, and emergency vehicle operation disciplines that we are already expected to perform, and do it safely and effectively? This is not an easy task, especially when it comes to a complicated and dangerous discipline like technical rescue. Following are some suggestions to make your technical rescue team more safe and effective.

The Level of Response

For a small department, training to an awareness level may be sufficient. This is especially true of small departments that border larger departments with more resources and special teams. At the awareness level, firefighters can identify a technical rescue and call for the necessary resources. This is especially important for confined space and trench incidents. Once the resources are on scene, the trained members can effectively assist the team that has come in to effect the rescue. For departments that want to provide a technical rescue service, the minimum level of training required is Operations. This gives members the training to effect the majority of the rescues they will encounter, but it does not cover the most complicated scenarios.

Last, for a full-service technical rescue team with in-house instructors, the required training level is Technician. This covers the most complicated rescue situations; with technician-level training and experience, the team should be able to handle any rescue they attend. By identifying the level of training that you want your team to maintain, you can identify the specific job performance requirements (JPRs) to provide that level of service.

Using the Standards

Once you have identified the level of service you would like to maintain, use National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1006, Standard for Technical Rescue Personnel Professional Qualifications, as your guide. After taking the initial accredited course, create a checklist of JPRs to ensure that your members are drilling on the evolutions that they may be expected to perform. I have seen departments try to schedule an entire year of technical rescue drills to ensure their members do not miss anything. This is problematic because members take shifts off, have sick days, or there’s a fire the day a JPR is scheduled. This has resulted in members going years without performing critical and commonly required skills.

Using the NFPA standard as your checklist has three benefits. First, it is a complete list compiled by some of the top technical rescue experts in North America and is revised and updated every few years. Second, it is defendable. For instance, if after an incident you face legal questions concerning your department’s training or the rescue, your training will not be questioned since you were following the recognized best practice. Your members will have practiced every skill set that a recognized authority set as being the proper Awareness, Operations, or Technician level for that discipline, and they were performed (at least) annually. Finally, it gives the instructors a list of required JPRs to develop training. The checklist also allows members to track the skills they may not have had a chance to drill on lately.

Do’s and Don’ts of Training and Response

Avoid fancy new pieces of equipment or complicated rigging techniques. There are many professional rescue teams and rope access companies that do some impressive things with rope. You must remember, however, that these teams are not also expected to calculate pump pressures at a high-rise fire, use hydraulic tools to disassemble a car, or enter a structure fire and search for trapped occupants in the pitch black and searing heat. We are firefighters; technical rescue is a service that we may offer, but we have many other skills that we must maintain as well. That fancy new technique might look “cool,” but the most effective fire department technical rescue teams keep their rigging simple, which, in turn, minimizes risk and improves efficiency.

Some new tripods are impressive and enable you to rig monopods and bipods (and perhaps much more). However, most teams with which I’ve worked struggle with maintaining the rigging skills for the most basic tripod when they are asked to also master trench rescue, rope rescue, structural collapse, and so on. By constantly introducing new techniques and equipment, your members are being asked to remember more and more rigging techniques, and everything else gets watered down. Keep things safe and simple. Simple is efficient. Efficient is fast.

Teach to the lowest capability. There will be members on every team who are passionate about rope, and they can rig in their sleep. There also will be members that love hazmat and are masters of atmospheric monitoring. If drills and classes are constantly being led at the level of those members, you will lose the member who struggles with rigging the brake bar rack or the one who can’t remember how to start up and bump test the four-gas detector. Identify the level that your weakest members are at and work your way up from there.

Scenario-Based Training

Finally, perform “roll-in” scenario-based training (but not until your team has mastered the individual skill sets). Halfway through a confined space rescue scenario is the wrong time to stop everyone and review patient packaging. When you start pausing a scenario to address an issue or point out a different method, it is no longer a scenario; this is what postdrill debriefs are for. Scenario-based training is just that: a scenario. It not only allows rescue team members to put together all their individual skills learned in skills stations but, just as importantly, it also allows team leaders and company officers to practice scene size-up, accountability, and incident command.

Remember, we perform the way we practice. You don’t have to perform full “roll-in” scenario-based training for your members to be masters of individual skills. However, when you arrive to that call for a person hanging off the side of a bridge, you will see those members looking over the edge because they have never trained on what their roles should be on arrival. Conversely, if you move into scenario-based training too quickly, your team will stumble over the basic skills, and the scenario-based training will not be effective.

By identifying the level of service you wish to offer to your community, using the NPFA 1006 standard as an annual skills checklist, keeping your techniques and rigging simple, teaching to the lowest skill level, and performing effective scenario-based training after mastering the individual skill sets, your team will be more safe and effective during its technical rescue operations. With our drill time becoming more and more valuable, we need to ensure that we are making the most of our time as well as maintaining the skill sets required to perform our job.


ERIC GROOTENDORST has been a career firefighter on the east side of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, for 12 years. He is an instructor with Vancouver’s Special Operations Team and Canada Task Force 1 HUSAR. Grootendorst is also the lead instructor for the Justice Institute of British Columbia’s technical rescue program as well as a principal committee member on NFPA’s 1670 and 1402 standards. He is also the lieutenant of operations for Canada Task Force 1 USAR.

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