FIRE CHIEFS are asked to put their manpower to the test. The usual lines drawn between truckie and engineman are becoming distinctions of the past. Today’s firefighters must cross over these lines and perform extra duties in the areas of rescue, haz mats, and medical service.

Many departments recognize the need (indeed, the demand) to expand their capabilities in such specialty areas. However, the smaller volunteer or paid department, unlike the large department that usually has a sizable manpower pool at its disposal, cannot accomplish such expansion without placing a severe drain on its budget and manning limitations. Fielding and maintaining specialty units can become a difficult proposition.

Yet, for all the difficulties, the demand for special services has heightened firefighter interest and awareness. Let’s consider aboveand below-grade rescue. These evolutions are receiving the attention they deserve. Firefighters are asking what can be done when a ladder isn’t long enough, or when it’s too awkward for placement in above or below-grade rescues.

Before we continue, some common misconceptions must be laid to rest:

  • A “high-rise rescue team” and “rope
  • team” are essentially the same, depending on local terminology.
  • A fire chief may believe that his district, containing threeand four-story buildings, doesn’t require such a special unit. He may have forgotten, however, that half of his district is commercial/industrial-based and that each year his department responds to people or personnel who have fallen or have been trapped there. Chances are that the victims are out of reach of his aerial equipment. These situations require the services of a specialty unit to expedite a successful recovery. Too many times, a simple operation (simple to an experienced team) is a massive gathering of firefighters and media, which complicates the situation for command and the victim in need, and reinforces the need for an experienced team trained to handle such situations.
  • In essence, any district with a commercial, industrial, or manufacturing layout containing large towers, tanks, or pipe networks is a prime candidate for a rope rescue team. Furthermore, any district with the traditional “tall buildings or rugged terrain” would most certainly fall into this category.

  • The complaint of the smaller departments is “we don’t have the men or the money.” However, take our famous firefighter ingenuity and anything is possible…yes, even a specialty team. First, assess your own liabilities and those of the adjoining districts. Second, assess your resources, taking inventory of manpower, money, and equipment.
  • Presently, fire departments of all sizes— volunteer and paid—are forming mutual-aid associations for haz-mat units and mobile cascade systems for joint use. The same can be done for a rope unit. Forget about politics and headlines and put your energy toward community safety and come up with a plan.

Common basic questions in forming a special unit are: How many personnel do we need? What do we need? How much will it cost?!! Who will train us?


  • A starter unit should consist of approximately six personnel in the beginning—an officer and five firefighters.
  • Size of the unit should be manageable; ease in equipping and training is the key to initial success. Take the manpower from two or three different companies and make them the core unit.
  • Individuals who are physically fit, cool-minded, and have a respect for heights are your prime candidates.
  • Once a unit is established, assistance instruction can start on the truck companies that will assist the team on runs.
  • In reality, the whole team won’t have to respond to all emergencies. Many situations can be handled with three members and a truck company.
  • The position of coordinator can be added to the team structure. He is the team public relations man with onscene unit command. Too many times, the incident commander isn’t familiar with the speciality unit’s SOPs. The coordinator will receive the team captain’s evaluation and plan of attack and relay this to incident command. If command doesn’t understand, he will break the team’s actions into plain English. This enables the team captain to concentrate on the rescue.




There are various levels of training and expertise your team should acquire. Not every team must be able to scale the Empire State Building. There are approximately three groups of skills that rope rescue units should achieve:

  1. descend to victim and retrieve;
  2. ascend to victim and retrieve; and
  3. special situations, such as rescues involving rivers, ice, helicopters, and other special recovery scenarios.

The words kemmantle rope, figureeight ring, and carabiner come to mind. To a department supply man, they sound like a foreign language. I highly suggest that serious-minded departments visit the nearest established unit for your initial start. Discuss your training, supply, and any other headaches with them. Establishing a sister unit is a valuable asset and shouldn’t be overlooked.


Cost is the big factor—not in equipment, but in training. Basic equipment for six men would run approximately S3,500 with no frills. Most items, when taken care of, will give years of service. Items such as rappelling ropes and webbing would have to be replaced periodically for team safety.


Low-cost training can come from state police and fire academies, military units, private nonprofit rescue organizations, and federaland state-funded organizations. (See “The Rescue Company,” Fire Engineering, December 1988.)

I highly suggest that departments join the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR), a nationwide organization of rescue teams and interested individuals who are willing to share their knowledge and experience. Departments can develop their formats from these sources, taking the information and adapting it to fit their own needs.

More costly and rigorous training is offered by a variety of private instructor groups. Many equipment distributors provide instructor teams that conduct individual courses. If you are in a hurry to get going, this may be the avenue to take.

The ever-increasing demands on the firefighter are taxing his ingenuity to the limit. Rope rescue skills have always been needed. Realization of that need is growing stronger. Many personnel have been injured attempting rescues “with just enough knowledge to get hurt”— and this shouldn’t be the rule. With time, cooperation, and some ingenuity, another fire department nightmare can be overtaken safely.

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