Enhancing Special Operations

By: Ken Pagurek

The alarm comes in and your engine company knows the address. Someone set a bed on fire at an apartment building, one of those seedy ones in the neighborhood you’ve been to before, with failing architecture and bars over the windows. There’s shouts from the inside. Those bars, once designed to keep intruders out, are keeping helpless occupants in.

In step the usual suspects – a special operations company – to saw off the bars and let your company work in a more tenable environment. You don’t have time in this situation to say thanks, and your firefighters don’t bother. Why? Even mentioning “special operations” to a company of firefighters carries an air of superiority, of smug heroics. To some, special operations teams have all the popularity of a preachy vegetarian at a barbecue or a teetotaler at a keg party.

Special operations companies, for the purposes of this article, are referred to as our rescue and squad companies comprised of firefighters with specialized training in all facets of technical, water or otherwise hazardous emergencies. These companies may or may not be dedicated companies; this depends on the capital budget of the fire department in question.

These companies – if they’re fully staffed and funded – can become seamlessly incorporated into conventional firefighting, fighting alongside the everyday gang of engines and trucks. While most fire departments have a set policy on when or if special operations crews respond, there are no rules about relationships between special operations crews and conventional fire companies. Companies often feel like special operations crews step on their turf and get in the way, and vice versa.

So they treat each other like the visiting team, jockeying for position on who gets to be the hero of the day without so much as an uttered “thanks” at the end of the day.

Let’s face it. Fire departments are suffering a drastic loss of resources and support, both at City Hall and on the streets. It’s been proven that having special operations companies at fires do abate some of the hazards that are unable to be covered by conventional fire companies.

It’s your fireground. Special operations companies are your guests. What can they do to help you?

While the perspective of many engine and truck companies is that special operations companies just steal the spotlight, this shouldn’t take away from the importance of their place in urban fire departments. These special operations companies frequently have dedicated firefighters who are there solely to prevent or rectify problems responding engine or truck companies face.

However, just like any other activity, their skills need to be utilized as frequently as possible to remain honed and ready when trouble arises. Special operations companies are detailed to remove window bars and gates, place additional hoselines in service or assist in hazardous, technical rescues, all of which are acquired skills learned through hands-on practice.

In order to be productive help, special operations companies need this fireground and routine emergency experience. The “special” in special operations doesn’t imply they’re more skilled at fireground tactics (or elitist jerks). It means they possess other specialized skills that make them unique in their capabilities. It is important that special operations companies use these skills wherever they can to ensure that their conventional and specialized skills receive adequate attention.

For special operations, training with the engine and truck companies during routine incidents, such as vehicle accidents (car into building), et al., develops relationships and sheds the “outsider” stigma. Getting to know the names of members they usually don’t see at fires goes a long way with firefighters – hell, anyone – on both a personal and professional basis. (This goes double for those in the truck, fighting for the prime piece of wall or ceiling to slice through. They’re your guests, remember.)

Think of humdrum calls as a training opportunity for the two of you. Play nice with each other, and you get rewarded.

Allow the special operations company to do their thing at a particularly shaky building fire, like perform a structural triage of a fire-damaged building and construct a spot-shore or two. Got a second or two of downtime? Take a look at what they’re doing. Ask some questions. Learn something. Better yet, involve the responding engine and truck company members in the process. While this could be seen as overkill or unnecessary work, realize that you are now conducting a company drill during a real-time emergency. Seemingly minor incidents such as this can prepare companies for future calls. You learn something, they learn something and lives get saved; Three birds, one stone.

Special operations companies spend hundreds of hours training for incidents that don’t happen very often, and letting them come along with everyone else gives them a chance to practice their craft and spot problematic areas from afar. Minor calls are opportunities, and each have some intangible benefits as well – it’s also an opportunity to forge stronger and more respectable relationships between companies.

The aforementioned scenario is just one way to bring these companies together more often. Mutual respect isn’t learned in a book or at a meeting. It’s seldom learned during drills or training, even. It’s learned at the scene, when guys pitch in for each other. It’s learned when chiefs know how or when to advantageously use special operations crews. And it’s learned at the end of a hard day, when you know your teammate’s name and offer a solid handshake.

You can’t do more with less. Allowing the responding companies to arrive, help out and forge relationships will aid every responder with new insight, capabilities and real experience. Incorporating special operations companies should be as seamless as switching from an emergency medical services response to a firefighting one. When special operations companies show up at the next fire or emergency – benign or not – everyone should realize that real training is about to take place.

Special operations teams are there to help, and they’re your guests at the barbecue. Are you going to be a jerk and spit in the coleslaw or let everyone leave with a full stomach?

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