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  • Writer's pictureRonin

Special Ops – Part Two – Training required for a Fire Service Technical Rescue Team

Last week Mark introduced us to some of the issues involved in maintaining supposed “Special Ops” teams in the fire service. Today he continues the discussion with part 2 of this discussion focused on the training required for a fire service tech rescue team to maintain competency.

Firefighters train daily. Medical, auto-extrication, fire attack, driving, public education, hazardous materials, rescue, building construction, breathing apparatus and the list continues. Sometimes it appears to be the “jack of all trades, master of none” scenario. However, every training topic in the fire service links with another. Should training for technical rescue not be simple to complete? There would appear to be an obvious answer to this statement, but after many years evaluating rescue teams, training is the number one reason for the success or failure of a team.

Many departments send their instructors to a third party organization to learn rescue skills and techniques. They then have the instructors return and train the staff in the same techniques they were taught. This is a recipe for disaster. We call it the “90 equals 65 rule”. You send your member to receive training. Say the instructor that delivers the program is outstanding and delivers 90% of the curriculum. Your member (new instructor) is also outstanding and retains 90% of what they were taught. Your instructor has very good instructional abilities and manages to deliver 90% of what they learned. Your other firefighters are excellent students and retain 90% of what is delivered. Congrats – your team is running at 65% and we have not even challenged anyone yet! The instructor must be trained to a higher standard then what they are expected to deliver. They must know more then what the students are expected to.

This usually means attending higher level training in addition to obtaining real world experience.

A truly “special operations” rescue team must have the basics dialed in. What is the strength of your carabineer? While open? Cross loaded? Who makes it? What diameter bar stock is it? What is the inspection criteria? Can you open all of your carabineers with either hand while blindfolded? Wearing rescue gloves? Wearing winter gloves? Suspended? Under pressure? Can you hook it into every sling you own? Seamlessly? While suspended? In the rain? In the snow? In a house, with a mouse? You get the idea. We just created a 40-minute lesson on the carabiner. You need to know all your gear. Know how to use it, break it, save it, jerry rig it.

Your team needs to have at least 200 repetitions of use on all skill based competencies.

This creates muscle memory.

rescue team training

Many North American FD teams we have worked with look upon us with concern when they see 11mm ropes appear for training. “You cannot use those – they don’t meet the standard”, or “those are not safe” are mentioned time and time again. We sit down with the trainees and discuss the mission parameters and rescue principles such as a 10:1 safety factor and then ask – “is it safe or not safe for whatever scenario we are training on”. We see an issue in the fire service where teams train to match the equipment and procedures they already have.

Remember NFPA 1983 is an equipment standard for manufactures. It is not a user standard!

They forget that the mission is to rescue the patient. Quickly, efficiently and safely!

Too many times it seems that the goal becomes to follow the procedures, whether they are adequate for the situation or not.

This leads to a controversial concern about the training provided in the fire service and the amount of policy and procedure that must be followed. Policy and procedure are implemented with the thought that we are creating solutions to ensure the greatest chance of success to the most prevalent problems. We would argue it does the opposite. We have seen that this creates “book rescuers” that cannot operate outside of the manual. They can only follow the procedure with no deviation. So while direction is good (and required), it can be limiting for high performance teams. These teams require strategic direction at the 10,000 foot level, however the tactics need to be left to the discretion of the leader on the ground. Why? Because every rescue is different. A “simple” pick off of a victim hanging in their fall arrest equipment can require different skills based on situational influencing events. In the military we used to refer to something similar to this as “ground truth” or the “terrain dictates”. The fire service needs to learn from this cross pollination. Not only does your equipment, staffing, policy, procedure and training dictate the preferred rescue type, the patient, injury type, time, weather, terrain – all get a vote. If you are a one trick pony – very quickly you will come up against a problem that your DS (directing staff – more military parlance, think planed and prepared) solution won’t fix. So where is this going?

To be a truly “Special Operations” rescue team your members need to learn the principles behind the problems and solutions.

Recently we asked an instructor to teach a knot pass. This instructor immediately grabbed a radium release hitch, standard fare for their particular department. We immediately told him – no you cannot use the RRH. We received the blank stare back. This was a “book institutionalized instructor”. We pulled his one trick – leaving him with no more options. We discussed the principles of what we were trying to accomplish. We discussed the equipment we had at hand, as well as the limitations. We reviewed what else in the kit will provide a solution. This principle based approach is paramount.

It could be noted that this “book and procedure” based approach to rescue and training may be why in North America so many teams are adamant about using larger, heavier, safer(?), equipment. Are we forsaking training and skill development by using more forgiving systems? Or are we just less proficient in the principles of the rigging?

Not all the training needs to be in rescue. Leadership is a vital, yet an often overlooked piece of the pie. The fire service generally does only a mediocre job in training its leaders. Yes, start the hate mail now; however prior to putting the stamp on the envelope, think about the leaders in your department. Are they “leaders” or “managers”? Would you follow them comfortably to put out hell if asked? Yes, there are always great leaders in any organization. Ask yourself, where did these great leaders in my department obtain this training and experience? Was it in the department, organized sports, the Military or elsewhere? Does your department provide continued training opportunities for its leaders? Leadership is tough. Quite often the rescue team leader on site is fulfilling the role of operations officer or the incident commander. He or she will have subordinates and superiors of varying training and experience regarding rescue. There will be competing priorities, their task will be difficult, dangerous and require a timely response. They will need to utilize a quick and simple command sequence such as “think, plan, act”, “identify, prioritize, execute” or similar.

A robust training and mentorship program is essential to ensure your rescue team leaders can operate successfully in this environment.

This training and mentorship needs to be continually ongoing. Just because you were qualified once upon a time … that’s how all fairy tales start. In addition a succession plan needs to be in place. The next generation of leaders need to learn from the current leader’s successes as well as failures.

Another element of a successful rescue training plan is cross training. This cross training needs to not just include elements such as advanced medical training, vector mathematics, Newtonian physics but other rescue disciplines such as confined space, mountain rescue, etc. If your rescue team is a metro, urban high angle rescue team only, you might think why would we pay to train the team to perform mountain rescue? We don’t have any mountains. To enhance skills and allow for a better understanding of the principles – that’s why. Rope rescue is really the basic element in many other rescue methods. Confined space rescue teams use ropes in a hole, mountain rescue teams use ropes in the mountains. Each one of these disciplines have unique anchoring, rigging and operational challenges. Learning skills from other disciplines allows the team to gain experience that it would not otherwise have.

Time-based scenarios are a must. I know this is not popular within many facets of the fire service. Many people have heard the term “train as you fight”. The general goal of a rope rescue is to remove a patient from a hazardous location utilizing a rope system, in a timely fashion and a manner to minimize injury. This means time is a factor in a rescue and as such time must be added to training scenarios. Yes, this does create a situation where there will be “winners and losers”. Due to gravity, rope rescue is an unforgiving specialty and adding the stress of time and competence in front of your peers is an effective way to add in operational stress to the training scenario. This will pay dividends on the emergency scene.

Finally, rescue is a low-frequency, high-risk event.

We don’t perform live rescues enough to sit back and wait for the experience to pile up. Lucky for us rescue geeks, anytime we suspend a “live load” patient, we are in reality performing a rescue. We need to take this scenario based training to the next level. Instructors need to add realism and variety to the training scenarios. How many teams train in the dark? How many teams go out into the community to train in new and unusual locations? Or is it primarily the attitude of “lets go bash this out in the tower and get it in the book”? I live in an area where it happens to occasionally rain (like continually from November – March). Water certainly affects ropes and control descent device performance. Do we ever train in the rain? This is where popularity, leadership, performance and expertise all meet. While you are out in the public, talk to industry. Perhaps there is an opportunity to cross train with a local private industry team.

Rescue Training in the Rain

Do you train in all the same environments in which you may have to do it for real?

Many of the ideas and comments presented here are controversial or against the common grain of current fire service training techniques. Do your teams not train to the highest standard they can because they don’t want to or perhaps they do not have the basic skills dialed in enough. Perhaps they don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers.

When your team is comfortable in their own skin, they will take the “embarrassment risks” during training. They will push the envelope and learn from their failures. This is what will set a rescue team apart from a Special Operations Rescue Team.


This article is part 2 of Mark’s 4 part discussion of Special Ops in the Fire Service. The 3 previous articles are included below:

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