Training the Technical Rescuer

By Mike Donahue

This article will focus on instructing the technical rescuer. I use the term “instructing” loosely; this topic was sort of an “Ah ha!” moment for me. Following is the story of how I came to teach the way I do.

I suffered through most of high school mainly because of poor teaching methods and a serious lack of inspiration and motivation. Those two words (“inspiration” and “motivation”) played a big role in my overall plan of attack. During and after high school, all I wanted to do was make music; I was and still am a drummer. I mention this because I carry the entertainer part of me into all the classes I teach.

I decided to become a firefighter at age 18, and with that I came to find out that this meant a lifetime of education, from the “thick” Firefighter 1 textbook to all the continuing education classes you take to maintain your certifications or learn about new topics. I came to learn that the more educated you were, the safer you would be, and I wanted to be the knowledgeable guy who other firefighters looked to for the answers.

Taking all of these classes, you’re exposed to a lot of different instructors; some amaze you and some deter you. The ones that amaze you are the ones that leave the mark. They are the ones that push guys forward, inspire, motivate, and actually teach. Anybody can be an “instructor.” Anybody can attain that certification that says you’re an instructor. There’s a big difference between “instructing” and “teaching”; this is something on which students pick up quickly.

I became an instructor on a whim, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do it or if I would be any good at it. To my surprise, in my eyes and through student feedback, it was and is a huge success for me, and the reason is because I’ve always learned things differently. My mind is wired for creativity, much like all people in the technical rescue world. So, when I teach, I present skills and topics in, at times, a very unorthodox manner. I prefer the term creatively. I will never, ever tell any student that something is difficult; that sets them up for failure from step one. Everything should always be “easy” and I will always tell them, “Let me show you how to do it.” Right off the bat they’re thinking, “Great! This is easy. I can do this!” Now, they’re in the right frame of mind to learn.

Entertainment is important. If you lose your crowd (class), you’re done. You may as well just go teach the wall in the hallway the material. Be energetic, take risks, and entertain! Your class is your show; it’s either a boring opera or a high-powered concert. You make the choice.

Technical rescue is a diverse and specialized area of our world in emergency services. To succeed in this arena, you must be a thinker and have the ability to think outside the box. Those two skills are critical to a student’s success. Most students have the ability to think outside the box. You, as the instructor, may need to just show them that they can do it. Set them up for success.

If I we’re teaching a student to build a vertical shoring system to support the floor above us, you would give him the basic knowledge of how a shoring system works and the load ratings of any equipment in the area. Before class, I would bring out some 4x4s, 2x4s, 6x6s, and maybe some 2x8s, all eight-foot lengths. I would also bring out for the students some pneumatic struts and associated equipment. Once you begin the class and see the students’ plan of attack, throw them a curveball. If they start building their systems with 4x4s, give them a few minutes and then throw your “pitch.” I use the following exchange as an example:

“Hey Pat, the structural engineer just informed us that the estimated load we’re shoring is about 15,000 pounds. 4x4s are going to be a no-go. What are we going to do?”

Being that they’re new to this field, coach them to get the knowledge out of them that you taught.

“How about using 2x8s, Pat?”

If his answer is “no,” ask him why, and what he wants to use. If Pat responds:

“2x8s won’t support the load. I want to use the 6×6 lumber because I know at 12 feet; its support load is roughly 20,000 pounds, and our uprights are seven feet, so they will work.”

“Great! Sounds good to me. Let’s first throw up a temporary shore to give us a safe area to work in. What can we use here?”

“Let’s use the struts.”

Although these weren’t actual problems, by asking the student questions and offering him multiple materials to use, you’re training his brain to make decisions on the spot. Even though it’s training, the student is under pressure because it’s a new and unfamiliar skill he’s doing, and human nature gives us the desire to impress someone that is at a higher skill level than us. Thinking outside the box under pressure is the desired goal (as well as demonstrating the skill properly). If you can level the playing field with your students and take away any insecurities they may have, their ability to learn will increase. The trick is to insert the needed “pressure” to really hammer home the importance of the skill they’re learning.

Realistic training also works well. For example, instead of using a white board and a projector to discuss a trench rescue operation, arrange to have an actual trench dug and hold a live exercise. Remember, be entertaining. Also, arrange to have a hysterical site worker approach your students screaming for help, or add some fake smoke to a confined space drill and simulate a broken steam pipe. I teach students a skill such as how to build a 4:1 mechanical advantage system, allowing them to build it once or twice, and then I surprise them by saying, “Now put these blacked out safety glasses on and build the mechanical advantage system again under zero visibility.” Their first reaction is “This guy’s nuts!” But, when they do it, their confidence goes through the roof! Some reading this may have similar ideas, but they may think it and not implement it. Implementation really makes a big difference. The sky and your creativity are the limit.

Rescuers in this field tend to learn better visually and by using their hands. I know this because I’m one of them, and I poll all my classes to find that out. All the disciplines you may be or will be teaching are hands-on activities. So, why not teach them that way from the beginning? I call my lectures “active lectures” because there’s always hand- on activities involved. I’ll always find a way to get the materials or props into the room, even if that means building something special to make it happen.

Lectures are your biggest challenge as an instructor. All eyes are on you, and if you don’t bring your “A” game with you, the students will have you “benched” within the first 10 minutes. So, bring your “A” game, turn the volume up to 11, and belly in. Technical rescue topics such as confined space rescue, trench rescue, high-angle rescue, and building shoring are very technical, very interesting subjects.

Never use bullet points; they will kill your crowd. If you’re discussing anchor systems in a rope rescue lecture, and slide 1 discusses bombproof anchors, just show a picture of a steel I-beam or a structural column. Discuss what they are, and give examples using your voice—not words on a screen. By doing this, you’re constantly interacting with your students, and they in turn are focused on you, not the typeface on the screen. This really makes a big difference in your overall class flow as well as your students’ retention of what they’re being taught. I learned this from several books on presentation, and when I implemented this, the difference was huge. I never liked using bullet points, so I tweaked a few things and came up with a few ideas of my own.

Quality equipment is a major must-have when training in these disciplines. Everything you’re doing is high risk, and that risk must be managed by proper, quality equipment. Using the right gear for the right job not only makes your operation safer, but students will learn faster and better. For example, consider a raker shore using 2×4 lumber and finishing nails. Yes, you can duplicate a raker shore using that material, but just because it looks like a raker doesn’t mean it is one. Cuts will be different, the weight of the system will be different, and any visual memory your students developed will be based on the wrong materials. For most of us, visual memory plays a big role in our jobs. Under major stress, that picture that pops in your mind and guides your hands needs to be the right one.

If money is a factor, budget for the drill or hire an outside agency to come in and hold the program for you. Either way, it’s money well spent. You’ll never be able to put a price tag on proper training that saved someone’s life.

The following is a quote from the late Steve Jobs. These are words to live by as a person and as an instructor. I know I do.


Mike DonahueMike Donahue has 18 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 11 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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