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  • Writer's pictureRonin

Special Ops – Part One – Certification and Competency

In the fire service specialty disciplines such as Technical Rescue and Hazardous Materials Teams are often lumped under the “Special Operations” category (in this article we will focus specifically on technical rescue).

For anyone that watches the news the term “Special Operations” immediately has them thinking about Military Special Forces (SF) or at the very least highly trained, specialized teams. The questions posed here are; is “Special Operations” the correct word for these teams in the fire service? Is the term too militarized? Are the teams trained well enough to be considered a “highly trained, specialized team”?

Perhaps it is our google feed, however when I search for Special Operations on the internet the first page is entirely Military. In fact, it took until page 7 of searching until Nashville’s Fire Departments Team was listed. As we are such an internet driven society, does this make this heavily militarized term inappropriate for non Military use? If you are a member of the public and see a uniformed person with a patch on their shoulder that reads “Special Operations”, who do you automatically think they work for? The Military? The Police? The Fire Service? So what? Who cares you ask.

Well, Fire Service personnel have limited training and even less personal protective equipment (PPE) for threats to their person. Why should they? They fight fires, perform medical response, complete rescues, etc. They don’t enforce the law or mitigate armed response situations. Sure they perform services which enhance and assist agencies that conduct these types of operations however firefighters are not door kickers for dynamic entries – unless the building is burning down. Does having firefighters wearing similar clothing and utilizing militarized terms on patches, vehicles, etc, put them at an increased risk of being on the receiving end of violence? Does it take them away from their perceived neutrality on the street?

The other side of this discussion is if the term “Special Operations” is even an acceptable term for what Fire Department’s “do”? Trixie Lohrke defines Special Operations in the Thesis Paper “Analyzing the need for special operations teams within the fire service, 2011” in the following way: “While rescue is the primary mission of the fire service, not all rescue efforts entail putting out fires. For this reason, the fire service created special operations teams. Specialized teams of firefighters have been trained and organized within the fire service to respond to high-risk but low-frequency events. Special operations (special ops) teams may or may not respond to fires.

A good way to define a special ops team is as any operation other than basic fire suppression that requires specialized training in unique topics such as:

  1. Urban search and rescue (US&R)

  2. Hazardous materials response team (HMRT)

  3. Swift water rescue

  4. Dive rescue team

  5. Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD)

  6. Wildland firefighting

  7. Aircraft rescue firefighting (ARFF)”

Can this highly unionized, non-military profession train and equip teams to a high enough standard to be worthy of the “Special Operations” name or designation? I would hazard that the teams on departments such as the FDNY, Tokyo FD or Paris Fire Brigade have met the level of expertise to be identified as “Special Operations”. Beside the FDNY (which does have a rescue selection process), both Tokyo and Paris run military style selections (Paris FD are actually military members) to become members of their rescue units. All three of these teams are also full time rescue teams, with Paris and Tokyo not responding to fires at all. Paris and Tokyo FD rescue teams will also take what North American teams would consider an inappropriately high level of risk in order to increase speed. Basically these are military units highly influenced by military hazard/risk ideals.

This is not the case for the majority of the FD Rescue teams being operated in North America. For many of these departments we are speaking about, technical rescue, HazMat or USAR is tertiary to their primary response functions of fire suppression, auto extraction and medical response. Is it even fair to believe that members of these departments have the time on top of their regular duties to train enough to be experts in these fields also?

I mention the unionized environment purposely. The union pursues an agenda of equal pay for equal work and in many cases seniority above all. As such interesting issues arise. Do we pay Special Ops firefighters more than regular firefighters? If we do will we get team members that are only there for the pay? With the seniority clauses in many fire departments, the senior firefighter that applies gets the posting. If there are monetary or other incentives with these seniority clauses does this breed an attitude of entitlement instead of excellence?

We have travelled around the world and worked with fire department special operations teams. We have seen major metro US, CDN, European and Asian fire departments with specialty teams whose members could not pass basic specialty exams. This becomes obvious at rescue challenges, such as GRIMP Day. For instance, very few North American rescue teams have ever competed in this European competition. One could claim barriers to entry such as the amount of money to participate or difficult logistics as reasons not to attend. However, in talking with Special Operations team leaders in North America the answer we usually receive is “our team would get destroyed in this competition” or “we could not get enough quality staff to attend to even make a decent showing at that event”. The question then needs to be asked, if Special Operations teams do not feel they have the expertise to compete, what makes us think they will be able to perform at the next rescue in their own jurisdiction? Remember once a “live patient” is on line, every scenario is the real deal, whether a practice drill or an actual rescue.

Another item that comes into play is culture. The majority of technical rescue teams in North America have members that have rescue as a tertiary duty. As such these members do not bond together the way a military or specialty rescue unit will. So what? A culture, such as one of excellence, continually learning and safety versus speed leads to innovations in training and rescue. This assists a team become truly “Special Operations”.

Now this may sound accusatory or unfair. We honestly feel that the fire service member’s posses the ability to operate at this level (we see this transformation frequently). The teams in the station however are constrained by the realities of the service. We utilize off duty metro firefighters on industry rescue teams daily. These firefighters have taken hundreds of hours of specialty rescue training in numerous fire departments prior to being deployed privately. We still need to provide close to two weeks of training to have them ready to work in industry and need to provide close to six months of training and mentorship to qualify for a position on our competition rescue team. Think about that for a minute. We require an additional 6 months to bring a full time firefighter/rescue technician that is at an instructor level (usually in multiple disciplines) up to a level where they can compete with the worlds best in a competition.

This is why we feel training techniques and ideas to make a rescue team a truly “Special Operations Team” are limited in the fire service. As are the supports that are required to perform at the top end of the spectrum.


This article is part one of Mark’s 4 part discussion of Special Ops in the Fire Service. The other 3 articles are included below:

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