Size-Up and Plan Development at a Technical Rescue Operation

By Mike Donahue

Size-up and plan development at a technical rescue operation is an important task for firefighters operating in the field of rescue operations, yet it’s a task that is misunderstood mainly because these operations are usually highly complex and the incident commander (IC) may not have a rescue background. When this is the case, the size-up performed will be similar to that performed at a fire operation, which means a lot of vital information will be missed. This is usually avoided somewhat because the IC relies on his specialized companies to feed him information and essentially run the operation. However, this entails a time delay associated with receiving that initial report, perhaps on account of reconnaissance or the reflex time it will take for specialized companies to get on scene.

Technical rescue operations have a vast amount of information that is needed to ensure a safe and proper operation. There’s also a lot of training and knowledge of rescue disciplines that is needed to run these operations. Let’s consider all the key points and considerations you must look for and take into account when commanding a scene such as a rope rescue operation. Operations like this are fast-paced and usually time-sensitive. Your decisions need to be on point and meet the pace of the operation.


Let’s imagine a hypothetical operation in which a window washer has had a hardware malfunction. The descent device he was using has jammed and he is unable to move. The building he are working on is 20 stories tall and he is stuck at the 12th floor. As the IC, you arrive on scene first and begin your size-up. The first two bits of information you’ll take in will be the structure type and location of the victim. Make verbal contact with the victim and find out a three things rather quickly.

1. What is the nature of his problem?

2. How long has he been there?

3. Find out his well-being (medical considerations).

Your victim can have no medical concerns and present perfectly healthy. Be alert for a condition called suspension trauma, which is an effect on the body when it is held (suspended) upright and motionless for a lengthy amount of time and may result from the pressure being applied by the harness. Eventually the victim will faint, a serious problem if the victim remains in a vertical position because his brain won’t receive the required oxygen required. Because of this there is a potential for death.

Once you ascertain these three bits of information, notify incoming units of your initial findings (structure, victim(s), and location). Looking at the exterior, access the floor he’s suspended at and perform a few quick tasks.

1. Get an up-close look at the situation. Having the ability to see up close the problem at hand will play a major role in how you decide to attack the operation.

2. See if access to the victim can be made through the window. If you can simply pull the victim into the structure, your problem is solved. If they don’t open, your other option, if you have the capability, is to cut the glass and create an ingress point for the victim.

3. Of course, victims aren’t always conveniently located in line with the window. If this is the case, begin to develop a rough rigging plan that will ultimately evolve as you gather information.

With the third option, your entire operation will center on this. Don’t get tunnel vision on the victim’s location and the structure, and don’t limit your operational rigging plan to your first initial thought. That thought may be based on something you’ve read regarding this type of rescue, or perhaps you had an instructor that taught you “this” was the way to effect such a rescue. You’ve now limited yourself to multiple rigging ideas, and working from only one initial idea could cost you precious time should it not work out as planned. Like any rescue operation, these are dynamic scenes. A good rescue specialist will adapt to the needs of the operation as he goes. Your rigging/rescue operation should get several different methods to effect the same rescue.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that everyone’s first instinct is to head to the roof and rig their system. In my opinion, if I can get a few floors above the victim to set up my rigging operation, that’s what I’m going to do. Why rig on the roof and lower or raise the victim and rescuer, say, 100 feet? Rigging from a few floors above, you may only need to raise them 10 feet and pull them into the building. Of course, if the windows do not open, the roof is going to be your target area.

However, let’s say the victim is suspended at the ninth floor. Is there another method we could use to effect this rescue? Post your answer and ideas in the comment box below.

Safety of the operation is always number one and it’s the IC’s job to ensure that is happening. Granted, it’s everyone’s job to ensure that, but a leader should lead by example. We’re all in this together, so everyone should look out for everyone else’s safety.


I base my rigging operations around an acronym I came up with: S.E.E (Safe, Efficient, and Effective). If you’re commanding the operation or if you’re just commanding the rigging portion, I’d like to think this acronym will ensure a solid rigging setup.

Safe: All our systems should be checked and rechecked by two different people, for the same reason a company that performs a primary search of, say, division one in a fire building wouldn’t be assigned to perform the secondary. It is human nature to check the same things or areas the second time around. Using two different people diminishes this possibility.

Efficient: Just because we have a large cache of rope hardware doesn’t mean we need to use all of it. The more hardware you run the rope through, the more friction you’re picking up. This causes you to lose systems efficiency.

Effective: Is the rigging set-up going to be effective? Is it going to accomplish the needs of your rescue situation? An example: Your entire system is rigged and ready to go. Your rescuer approaches the roof edge or window only to realize that the chosen anchors don’t line up with the transition point. This can be easily corrected using a directional pulley, but now you’re wasting time rigging that into the system. The IC or whoever is running the rigging operations should have caught that in the beginning. A constant survey of the rigging process as it unfolds is a must. Everyone makes a mistake now and then, even a strong, sold technical rescue team. As the IC, be on the same page as your personnel, should your input be needed.

Now that the rigging setup is complete, the rescue cab begin. If you already have a rigging operations commander, you’ll now need rescue operations commander whose job will be to work the transition point and communicate with the rescuer. The rescue operations commander will relay information to the IC regarding the operation. Having both the rigging and rescue operations overseen allows you to take in the whole picture and apply a dynamic thought process to the operation as a whole, allowing you to bounce back and forth mentally without fear of missing something. You can also communicate as needed to ensure the overall operation runs smoothly. During the rigging operation, develop your own rigging backup plan should a component of the initial plan not work or should something go wrong during the operation. This doesn’t mean you don’t trust your personnel, it means you’re there for them should something bad or completely outside the box arise. As the IC, you must command the incident with the feeling that you have things covered should something go wrong. Stress in an operation is poison and will severely hamper your thought process. Be prepared and avoid placing yourself in a situation such as that.

Once the operation is complete, debrief the companies then and there. The operation is still fresh in everyone’s mind, so lessons learned will or should flow well. Never Monday Morning Quarterback, which makes you look weak as a commanding officer. It’s easy for someone after the fact to second-guess decisions made in the heat of the moment. Addressing mistakes are what debriefings are for. It’s easy to base your present opinions on actions that have already happened, and it’s a quick way to lose all respect from your personnel. Presentation of your thoughts is sometimes a delicate task. Done correctly, your ideas will be accepted, do it poorly and they will be ignored.

Rescue scenes are dynamic and ever-changing. As an IC, your operational plan needs to be just as dynamic and flexible to adapt to changes as they come. Remember to develop your own backup plan; if your input is needed or your companies look to you for an answer, you need to have one. Rescue guys have a saying: “There’s no ‘I can’t’ or ‘I don’t know.'” When the pressure is on or if we’re called upon to do so, we make it happen. As the IC, it’s your overall responsibility to make sure it happens.

Mike DonahueMike Donahue has 17 years of fire service experience and has been a career firefighter in the city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, for the last 13 years, working out of Rescue Company 1 for the past 10 years. Mike teaches a Middlesex County College as an adjunct professor and acts as the Fire Service Program Coordinator. Mike is the owner of Progressive Rescue and can be reached at



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