THE RESCUE TECHNICIAN AND NFPA STANDARDS

BY MEL EADY

Recently, as the new technical rescuecoordinator for the Georga Fire Academy (GFA), I was assigned to review and update the technical rescue programs. My background in teaching rope rescue gave me the technical knowledge I needed, but this was not enough to develop a statewide training plan. Technical rescue, in general, is a high-risk and low-frequency occurrence in the rescue industry. Since there are never enough hours in the day to train on all the things that firefighters are expected to know, I looked for guidance to see what is expected of the “technician.” I looked to the industry standards that used the term to see what was expected of rescuers. After many conversations and after receiving conflicting interpretations of a technician’s expected duties, I realized that I would have to read the standards myself.

Now realizing that reading the oh-so-suspenseful booklet adorned in red could be as exciting as watching the grass grow, I decided to dive into the material. Confused at what seemed to be more conflicting information, I immediately figured out that I couldn’t jump to the end of the standard to find a fairy tale ending. Instead, I’d have to start at the very beginning. Once I did, it was clear that I was trying to make the wrong standard fit with our programs! Each standard is directed to a different audience. Perhaps you, too, have had difficulty trying to decipher which standard you should reference. If so, this overview of three standards may save a lot of time and confusion. However, if you are looking for the cure for insomnia, by all means, dive into the original documents yourself.

NFPA TECHNICAL RESCUE STANDARDS

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is committed to advocating consensus codes and standards and providing research and education for fire and related safety issues. A nonprofit membership organization, the NFPA has more than 65,000 members and is staffed by more than 5,000 volunteers, many of whom are members of technical committees. These committees develop standards that promote a high level of safety to which all fire service personnel and organizations are held accountable.

Currently, three NFPA standards that apply directly to technical rescue operations should be addressed in rescue technician training. Each NFPA standard includes a “Scope,” the persons and situations to which it applies; and its “Purpose,” or the intent of each standard; both are vital to knowing which standard to reference when more specific details are needed.

Each standard is dynamic; it evolves and changes with each revision. The information below is based on the standard’s most recent revision. Future revisions may change or address additional areas of interest; it is up to each person and department to revisit standards as they evolve.

NFPA 1670, Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents. This standard was originally developed in 1994; the most recent version was approved and adopted in January 2004.

The scope “shall identify and establish levels of functional capability for conducting operations at technical search and rescue incidents while minimizing threats to rescuers” (1.1.1). This standard’s requirements “shall apply to organizations that provide response to technical search and rescue incidents….” (1.1.2).

Hence, if your organization is an EMS, a law enforcement, or an emergency management agency, or any group that responds to certain technical rescue incidents, independently or in conjunction with the fire department, it should prepare to at least the minimum level of functional capability. NFPA 1670’s scope is to identify and establish levels of functional capabilities for agencies that provide response.

The purpose of NFPA 1670 is “to assist the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) in assessing a technical search and rescue hazard within the response area, to identify the level of operational capability, and to establish operational criteria.” (1.2.1)

The AHJ, a term found throughout NFPA 1670 and many NFPA documents, is the organization, committee, or person who makes the decision and enforces the rules for your team, department, or agency. The AHJ is responsible for approving equipment and materials and is also in charge of implementing departmental procedures.

NFPA 1670 goes on to state, “The AHJ shall establish levels of operational capability needed to conduct operations at technical search and rescue incidents safely and effectively, based on hazard identification, risk management, training level of personnel, and availability of internal and external resources.” (4.1.1)

By assessing these criteria, the AHJ can decide at which level it wants to be able to perform operations at a scene and “shall establish written standard operating procedures” consistent with the chosen level. (4.1.2) There are three identified levels of operational capabilities for a technical search and rescue incident; emphasis added by author.

The Awareness Level “represents the minimum capabilities of organizations that provide response technical search and rescue incidents.” (4.1.2-1) “The minimum training for an organization shall be at the awareness level.” (4.1.7.1.1)

The Operations Level “represents the capability of organizations to respond to technical search and rescue incidents and to identify hazards, use equipment and apply limited techniques specific in this standard to support and participate in technical search and rescue incidents.” (4.1.2-2)

The Technician Level “represents the capability of organizations to respond to technical search and rescue incidents, to identity hazards, use equipment, and apply advanced techniques specified in this standard necessary to coordinate, perform, and supervise technical search and rescue incidents.” (4.1.2-3)

NFPA 1670 identifies the need for a certain level of training, proper documentation, SOPs, hazard identification, risk assessment, incident response planning, equipment, safety, fitness, and so forth. The various levels of preparedness within each of these areas should be assessed for each organization. Based on a needs assessment, the AHJ shall provide the proper support to function to the planned level of operation.

Since the specialized needs to operate at the highest level of operational capabilities are difficult to maintain, the AHJ can choose to operate at a particular level for discipline X and a different level of operations for discipline Y. So what are the different disciplines identified by NFPA 1670?

Currently, NFPA 1670 addresses seven rescue disciplines:

  • structural collapse,
  • rope rescue,
  • confined space search and rescue,
  • vehicle and machinery search and rescue,
  • water search and rescue,
  • wilderness search and rescue, and
  • trench evacuation search and rescue.

Most of these disciplines identify a working environment; the standard correlates specific concerns that are found in those environments. Rope rescue is a little different, since it is not an environment specifically. That section deals with techniques that can be applied to a variety of environments. Because of that, rope rescue becomes a discipline that should be covered prior to exploring specific environments.

NFPA 1670 incorporates an entire matrix of requirements and compliances that must be met before moving on to the next level because of the close association of readiness. For example, for a team to be able to function at an operations-level confined space incident, it must also be fully capable of responding to an operations level rope rescue, an awareness level confined space incident, an awareness level trench excavation, and be trained in hazardous materials, a first responder, and so forth. It becomes increasingly more complex as you move up to the apex of the pyramid; each level and discipline builds on the prior one.

If your agency wants to respond at the technician level for a trench incident, it must have written plans and procedures for identification of hazards, formulating and implementing a plan, obtaining resources, training personnel, and member testing and reevaluation. Training is only one aspect to consider when choosing a level of operational capability.

Although a team may have the best structural engineers from Cal Tech, if that team doesn’t have the equipment to shore up a building collapse, then it can’t operate at the scene as a technician-level response team. Inversely, if a team has preplans in place, the needed equipment, and staffing, but doesn’t have the training, then it can’t operate as a technician-level response team either. To function at an incident, a team must be prepared in more areas than just equipment or people to function and operate together.

Although the GFA can help you meet the criteria for training of personnel, this does not mean that by training you, as an individual, to a certain level that your team is ready to respond.

NFPA 1670 focuses on organizations that are working to achieve a particular level of competency to operate at several different technical disciplines. It is not meant to address individual rescuer skills or qualifications.

NFPA 1006, Standard for Rescue Technician Professional Qualifications. NFPA 1006 addresses standards for rescue technician professional qualifications. The current version of this standard was approved and adopted in January 2003.

The scope of NFPA 1006 “establishes the minimum job performance requirements necessary for fire service and other emergency response personnel who perform technical rescue operations.” (1.1).

The purpose of NFPA 1006 “is to specify the minimum job performance requirements for service as a rescuer in an emergency response organization. It is not the intent of this standard to restrict any jurisdiction from exceeding these minimum requirements.” (1.2). Each of the listed “performance objectives, shall be performed safely, completely, and in its entirety.” (1.3.1).

This standard is aimed at the rescuer to ensure skill proficiency. There are many actions involved by each participant to perform certain requirements and to demonstrate specific skills and objectives. As a rescuer, you must meet certain minimum requirements for certifications. The person trained to a level to meet minimum job performance requirements and who has the ability to perform objectives safely, completely, and in their entirety is referred to as a rescue technician. No intermediary levels are identified for individuals who meet some of the requirements. An individual cannot be certified to rope rescue operations according to NFPA 1006. The terms “operations” and “awareness” refer to an organizational capability according to NFPA 1670 and are also referenced in NFPA 472, Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents, but these intermediary levels of performance are not identified by NFPA 1006. Only the rescue technician is defined by this standard.

NFPA 1006 defines a minimum requirement for certification. “The rescue technician shall perform all of the job performance requirements in Chapter 5 and all job performances listed in at least one of the specialty areas” covered in Chapters 6 through 14 (4.3). Chapter 5 refers to general job performance requirements and can be considered core skills. Chapters 6-14 refer to discipline-specific job performance requirements. This philosophy is referenced as a “core plus one” approach to comply with the standard.

Since the only level of professional qualification identified by NFPA 1006 is that of a technician, many reference a specific discipline when clarifying personal skills-i.e., rope rescue technician or trench rescue technician. There are no prerequisites that state an individual must become a technician of one particular discipline before becoming a technician of a different discipline-only that to qualify, one must be able to perform a core set of skills and also the discipline-specific skills.

Currently, NFPA 1006 addresses nine disciplines:

  • rope rescue,
  • surface water rescue,
  • vehicle and machinery rescue,
  • confined space rescue,
  • structural collapse rescue,
  • trench rescue,
  • subterranean rescue,
  • dive rescue, and
  • wilderness rescue.

These areas follow similar environments included in NFPA 1670 with a few additional areas. Each discipline is covered in its own chapter, and each chapter identifies several performance objectives that cover general requirements, requisite knowledge, and requisite skills. There is a core amount of information required by all the disciplines and then requirements for the specific area of specialization.

From this, the GFA and its instructors can train in individual skills, evaluate individual performance, and test personal understanding, even though the activity may take several people to perform. For this reason, the GFA has chosen NFPA 1006 as the standard to train to for all open enrollment courses. An individual can be evaluated by measurable criteria and certified once that person performs all the needed skills.

Remember that NFPA 1006 establishes minimum job performance requirements. This does not mean that once certified to a technician level, the rescuer is always able to perform to a needed level of competency. It does not mean that once you achieve technician status that the learning process is over. The skills and knowledge involved in the above listed disciplines are usually highly technical but are comparatively infrequently used. Knowledge retention and ability regression are viable concerns for individual qualifications. For that reason, regular self-assessments of skills and knowledge are strongly encouraged. Where do you rank on the continuum of knowledge? Where you rank at the end of a course and where you rank a year later will be different, since your skills will diminish if not frequently used or trained on.

When assessing your personal skills, do you want to “just get by,” or do you want to know your skills and know them well? How well do you want to perform on the scene? How well do you want to help your team perform? How well do you want to know this stuff? Well enough to be able to do it? Or just enough to get a piece of paper that says you can do it?

“Technician” is used to describe an individual’s performance and a team’s capability in two separate standards, but that does not mean a team standard and an individual standard are synonymous. This may explain why these two standards have been misinterpreted or misrepresented in the past. It is often confusing when reading the standards to fight through some complicated language and an awkward layout. It is understandable that a misinterpretation may have led to the misunderstanding that these standards could be lumped together and called “the rescue standard.” A better understanding of the overall intent of the standard aids the organization and individual to know where to reference information when specific questions arise.

NFPA 1983, Standard on Fire Service Life Safety Rope and Equipment for Emergency Services. NFPA 1983’s most recent edition was approved in 2006.

NFPA 1983 is used primarily by manufacturers for minimum design performance, testing, and certification requirements. This standard is not a “use” standard but a good reference to use for understanding the equipment used in the industry. NFPA 1983 identifies labeling, design and construction requirements, performance, and testing requirements for system components.

This standard does not identify system safety factors or how to use equipment and gear. If you are interested in knowing the minimum breaking strength of a particular diameter of rope, then refer to NPFA 1983. If you want to know testing procedures for a Class III harness, then NFPA 1983 is your bedtime reading material.

• • •

Each NFPA standard establishes a scope and purpose for those the standard affects and its intent. Each person involved with technical rescue should be able to now identify the critical points of the NFPA 1670, 1006, and 1983 standards and how each pertains to a technical rescue team vs. the individual rescuer. These standards are like an atlas for our industry. Each standard is a different map for a specific area in the fire service. We choose the destination, and the standard provides a path for how to get to our desired destination. There are many ways to interpret the map, but if we do not take a closer look at its details, we can get lost. If we just grab any map that’s available, without knowing the proper map to reference, we will stay lost even with our best efforts to orient ourselves.

Similarly, with standards, you need to familiarize yourself and your department well enough to know which standard to reference for direction. Does your map need to guide your team? Does your map need to tell you what you are personally responsible for knowing? Do you need a map that gives you the answers about gear? By taking a closer look at each of these standards, NFPA 1670, 1006, and 1983, we have a better idea of how to get to our destination and how to do the best possible job.

MEL EADY is the technical rescue coordinator for the Georgia Fire Academy, and is experienced in high-angle and cave rescue.

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