Art Bloomer: Special Operations in Small Departments


So far it’s been a fairly uneventful shift–a few service calls and a vehicle accident, so your overtime tour at the squad company as a “new” officer hasn’t presented any real challenges. Then, as if on cue, the pager in the station clicks on, announcing a rescue assignment for an injury at a construction site. As you and your crew respond, your thoughts run through the flipchart in your mind, reviewing all the possible scenarios. Then, the first-due engine calls out on the job and informs you that it’s a trench rescue with two workers trapped in an excavation collapse. And, just to make things interesting, the rescue company is on another run, and the chief is with them.

You are going to be the incident commander, and you have never even seen a trench, never mind worked an incident involving one. Your crew is a bunch of young ambitious types, and two of them decided it’s a good idea to jump down into the trench with the trapped workers. Since you are not normally assigned to the squad, and they are, you assume that they know what they are doing. A coworker of the guys trapped in the dirt up to their waists decides to bring over a back-hoe to try to dig them out. You also figure that since he’s in the construction field, he, too, is an expert. As he drops down the outriggers, right at the lip of the trench, you are very surprised and alarmed that the entire trench wall collapses inward, along with the back-hoe, onto your firefighters and the now more deeply buried original victims. You stand there dumbfounded until your other firefighter starts screaming, “Hey, Cap, what do we do now?”

 What just transpired for you, a new officer, is that you were put into a situation that very few in the fire service will ever have to deal with. A technical rescue operation is a very low-frequency, very high-risk type of incident. Even in the larger metro departments, this type of incident does not occur frequently enough to allow members to gain experience through on-the-job training. In a smaller department, of which the large majority of firefighters in this country are members, you may never ever have to respond to a technical rescue during your entire career.

Most of the departments across the nation don’t even have procedures or equipment in place to mitigate an incident of this type, mainly because they have never had to respond to one. They don’t feel the need to “waste” funding on something they will never have the need for—until the day that call they never received before comes in. This is where first responders get into trouble.

They arrive on scene and are confronted with a situation that they have never had to deal with before; and before the officer or crew can even start to form an action plan, the “duty to act” rears its ugly head. The duty to act has killed or severely injured scores of first responders.

If you are one who looks at statistics, 66 percent of all fatalities at confined space incidents are “would-be” rescuers who attempted to effect a rescue and obviously failed. The death of that rescuer is usually the reason for the failure. Of these fatalities, 75 percent are first responders. The remainder are coworkers or bystanders.

You may be thinking, we have to do something; we are the fire department. They called us here to fix the problem. We have a duty to act and fix the problem. My first statement to you is yes, the public expects us to act, but would you run into a burning structure without the proper turnout gear, no self-contained breathing apparatus, or no hoselines? More importantly, would you do so without any training on what to do? I would hope your answer would be no.

The problem is, the public does expect us to be able to fix almost any kind of problem. The truth is, we are not trained or equipped to handle everything. Where do we go from here?


The most common textbook examples of technical rescues are confined space incidents, high-/low-angle rescues, building collapses, and trench or excavation incidents. Now if you look at the most basic level of training that the average firefighter gets, Firefighter I, as it’s called in most areas, it only briefly touches on one type of technical rescue, confined space; and it’s only an awareness level class. That is probably a good thing because you are more likely to encounter a confined space incident than any of the other technical rescues in your career. And, most of the other scenarios have some semblance of a confined space issue included as well as the multitude of other issues responders have to address. Most of what you learn in an awareness level class is what not to do at a confined space incident, to keep you alive. Sometimes not doing something you know you can’t do because of a lack of proper training and equipment is the best thing to do initially.

The average firefighter assigned to engine and truck companies does not receive training past the awareness level. If your department does have a squad or rescue company, is it anything more than an extrication unit equipped and trained to respond to vehicular accidents or light rescue incidents? Most of the departments at which I conducted training seem to fall into that category. The concept is not wrong or bad as long as they know their limitations. Technical rescue incidents require specialized equipment; training on that specialized equipment; the ability to recognize the challenge at hand; and the knowledge, skill, and experience to mitigate it. And most departments, large and small, are not always willing to expend the funds needed to equip and train a unit in their community to respond to an incident that may never happen.

How do we better prepare to respond to, stay safe at a technical rescue incident, and do something to start to mitigate the problem? The first step should be to determine your exposure potential for a technical rescue incident.


 I am sure that you alone or as a company has looked at your response area for problem areas in relation to fire incidents. You looked at target hazards, abandoned structures, and other problem structures, did a size-up, and started to form a plan of attack if you ever had to respond to these sites if they were on fire. You can do the same thing in relation to the potential for a technical rescue incident. The first places to look are industries. You may have looked at them from a fire viewpoint;  now look for things such as confined spaces or other areas that could cause entrapments, such as machinery. Ask the supervisors at these sites; they will know all of the dangerous areas. Also look at the manhole covers in the street. Just how big are those pipes in the ground?  People do occasionally have to work down within the openings. 

Next would be construction sites. Look at the excavations alongside foundation walls; they are just another form of a trench. Speaking of trenches, are they installing pipelines or doing any road work in your community? As you drive around, stop and check on those sites. Are they following all of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety rules? And how about rope rescue? Do you have any cell towers; tall, inaccessible buildings; cliffs; or ravines? And I can’t leave out the most obvious–how about structures: houses, stores, schools, buildings of any sort? If you look around, you will find the potential for a possible technical rescue in your future.

Your next question might be, “What can I do about it?” Should we form a technical rescue team?     Do really need one? Can the department afford to properly put together, train, and equip a full or partial team? Is there a technical rescue team in the next community? Is there already a county team in place?

Look at the cost issue. This is where many departments went astray in the past. Right after the Trade Center Attack in 2001, funds were flying out of the government coffers into communities all over the nation to get technical rescue capabilities up and running almost everywhere. In the larger metro areas, this seemed to work out well, although there were some glitches. However, in some of the smaller communities, hundreds of thousands of grant dollars were spent to train and equip local teams. Everyone was jumping on the bandwagon. But with that specialized equipment comes many hours of training to become proficient in its use; and many, many more hours of training are needed to stay proficient.

Many small departments set up these teams. Because of a lack of calls for technical rescues, members lost interest and quit, leaving the expensive equipment lying idle. Many teams disbanded, some consolidated, and a few continued to plug along. Today, probably one in 10 of those teams formed all those years ago are ready to respond and do the job.

My advice to anyone planning to start a team is to not buy any equipment unless you have trained with it first. This will show you if you really need it or help you to choose from different manufacturers who make the same type of tool. Try to ensure that any equipment you purchase will be interoperable with the equipment of neighboring teams.

If there are other technical rescue teams in your close vicinity, you may not have to form a team. Seek these other teams out, and gather knowledge from them. Find out if they could respond in your community for mitigating rescue incidents. Maybe they can come in to train your members in certain aspects of technical rescue, so you can start the rescue process before they arrive. You will then be able to act without putting your members in situations for which they are not equipped or trained. There is also the possibility to form regional or countywide teams. If you find several other departments interested in developing technical rescue capabilities in your area, you can each take on the responsibility of training and equipping for a different rescue discipline.

 If you are already involved in or are looking to get involved in technical rescue, two factors you must consider are proper training and member retention. Each state has its own requirements for training in the technical rescue fields. I am not going to discuss training in depth here. One thing I do suggest is that you look at National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1006, Standard for Technical Rescuer Professional, and 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents. They outline the levels of training and capabilities for each level. They need to be your main reference when setting up your standard operating procedures (SOPs) for your team in addition to looking at existing SOPs from other teams in your area, county, or state. Retention of members will most likely turn out to be your biggest problem. Training in a rescue discipline takes a tremendous amount of time. When you add to that recertifications and drilling to prepare to respond to calls that never seem to come, retaining members will be a concern, especially in volunteer departments. Setting up training scenarios to keep your members interested and motivated will be extremely important.

The first place to look for a source of training is your closest fire and rescue academy. If you are starting up a new team and there are no other teams in the area, there’s a good chance your academy will not offer many, if any, classes. If you have county teams, most would be happy to have first responders who are capable of starting operations before they arrive on scene. If your state has a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) team, that is a good place to look for training. Many states also have statewide USAR teams that are not FEMA connected; they are also a good source for training. Many of these teams have set up or work closely with regional, county, and local technical rescue teams.


 You have probably figured out by now that this article is not going to teach you how to erect raker shoring, how to set trench panels, or even how to tie a figure eight knot. What I want to get across to each and every one of you is that there is a need for technical rescue knowledge in every department. As I have already said, knowing what not to do and not doing it is a good starting point. You need to become educated on the awareness level for any type of rescue incident that may confront you, and that means all of them. If you do decide to start a technical rescue team in your department, you need to start out slowly. Do a technical rescue size-up of your community, and determine what your “exposure” is. As stated, confined spaces seem to be everywhere, so that’s a good place to start. You can continue into rope rescue from there, as there are a lot of similar skill sets involved. Then you can follow with building and trench collapse rescue. All of this is going to take you several years to get everyone trained and to acquire all of the proper equipment.

 Special operations is sometimes a very misunderstood field. The incidents just don’t happen all that often, and many departments are not ready for them when they do. Your department needs to step back and take a hard look at what it is going to get involved in and start preparing to move forward. But most important of all, know your limitations. You need to go out and start your technical rescue training now, before the incident occurs.


ART BLOOMER is a 27-year member of the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department, where he is assigned to Squad Co. 2 and the Special Operations Division. He is a past chief of the Brick Township (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department and commands its technical rescue team. He is a rescue specialist with NJ-TF1 and a member of the Ocean County (NJ) Regional USAR Strike Team. A NJ level II instructor, he teaches at Rutgers University, is a lead instructor at the Ocean County Fire Academy, and is an instructor for OnScene Training Associates.


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