Technical rescue training hurdles and solutions

How to overcome challenges related to instructors, resources and funding


Technical rescue training is paramount to performing successful technical rescue operations. That sounds overly simplistic and generic, as it applies to everything we do in public safety. But it’s not that simple.

Tech rescue is a high-risk/low-frequency event that pushes our intellectual, physical and emotional boundaries much further than our other disciplines because of the lack of consistent exposure and the requirement for advanced problem-solving. The consequences for improper solutions are often swift and severe.

Standards and training foundation

Each of the six technical rescue disciplines – rope, confined space, vehicle/machinery, structural collapse, trench and water – has its own knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that are specific to either Operations- or Technician-level training.

NFPA 1006: Standard for Technical Rescue Personnel Professional Qualifications lays down the ominous, but appropriate, gauntlet of recommending that all KSAs for every organizational rescue discipline be performed annually, at a minimum. Specifically, any rescuer certified to any discipline has to complete the KSAs connected to that discipline and the certification level they have achieved at least once annually. That means if you’re certified in six disciplines to the Technician level, then you must complete both Operations- and Technician-level KSAs annually for all six disciplines.

3 obstacles for tech rescue training

When tackling the challenge of implementing an effective technical rescue training plan, there are three major obstacles to consider:

  1. Instructional expertise: Delivery of the content and oversight/instruction should be high caliber and safe. This requires an experienced, knowledgeable and capable instructional team.
  2. Resources: Tech rescue training requires tech rescue equipment that is up to date and compliant with applicable standards. The equipment world is constantly evolving, and the gear isn’t exactly affordable. Many departments attend tech rescue courses in which they are trained to use equipment that they do not have at their own organizations.
  3. Funding: Tech rescue training is not easily performed while on shift or during a brief two-hour window. Although it can be done, you get what you pay for in a sense. Pulling members off company or paying overtime for mass quantities of personnel to practice tech rescue skills for full-day evolutions can blow the overtime and training budget in the blink of an eye. This will always raise an administrative eyebrow based on that frequency side of the matrix.

During my career, I have tried many different approaches to create effective training plans at my own department, and I have spent my career providing every variety of training solution to outside agencies as a training provider. Let’s explore some lessons learned as well as effective solutions for the three challenges listed above.

Each of the six technical rescue disciplines has its own knowledge, skills and abilities that are specific to either Operations- or Technician-level training. (Photos/Dalan Zartman)
Each of the six technical rescue disciplines has its own knowledge, skills and abilities that are specific to either Operations- or Technician-level training. (Photos/Dalan Zartman)

Challenge 1: Instructional expertise – in-house to external sources of knowledge

There are three options for ensuring that training is high quality and delivered by a knowledgeable team:

Option 1: Find your most motivated and talented people with a passion for tech rescue and create as much opportunity as possible to send them to advanced-level training. This can be a small and focused group that is capable of bringing the information back to the department and conducting in-house training.

There are a lot of benefits to attending high-level courses outside of your state or region: It will bring forth new thoughts and considerations; it can be relatively affordable because the investment is directed toward a small number of individuals; and it gives you the opportunity to sample new gear and equipment before investing. Rely on this core group to become you subject-matter experts for detailing new resources.Hold these people accountable for spreading the wealth by investing their newfound knowledge back at home.

Option 2: Let’s say you’re further down the path of developing internal talent, and you already have some qualified individuals who can instruct. Evaluate opportunities to link your organization to a local vocational school or accredited university that would partner with you in the delivery of technical rescue courses. This is a major undertaking. But it can result in a rescue training campus at your organization in which your instructors are now paid through the college or other auspice and the programming expenses are deferred as well.

The department conducted a water-based rope course with integrated preplanning. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)
The department conducted a water-based rope course with integrated preplanning. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)

This can also lead to memorandums of understanding (MOUs) that entitle you as the host site to barter scholarships or tuition reductions for your own personnel. These types of arrangements can create a lot of synergy within the two entities in which your staff will have an identifiable path to achieve tech rescue certifications and eventually become instructors.

Consistent instruction is one of the best tools to develop high-level proficiency as a practitioner. Teaching material requires a level of mastery and accountability that exceeds simply performing and practicing the material.

This solution can also result in multi-agency cooperation for purchasing resources and equipment. Additionally, vendors or manufacturers are more apt to provide product support for large volume and high decision-maker exposure courses.

Option 3: Contact in an outside training agency to deliver certification courses and even refresher updates as needed. This is your best option for continuity of material and validity of training, provided you’re using a reputable training group.

This approach is not cheap. You are also stuck with pulling large quantities of personnel off company and covering their slots. Again, expensive.

You can seek train-the-trainer opportunities with the training groups and develop plans that move toward an intrinsic solution in which you are eventually delivering and maintaining your own training. Some training organizations will be accommodating with this request and share curriculums and other training modalities, while others will have a significant price tag attached to providing their intellectual property.

Challenge 2: Resources – the right equipment for the job

Once you identify the disciplines on which you want to train, you have to start with an appropriate environment.

Classrooms, in my opinion, are not as essential as people think they are. I have delivered PowerPoint lecture segments in state-of-the-art auditoriums as well as apparatus bays with a sheet thrown up on the wall and a portable projector.

The deal-breaker or maker is the hands-on environment. I believe it is important for organizations to practice where they will play. This means if you have an industrial complex with confined spaces in your district, you should be training there before an actual event occurs. But this doesn’t mean these are the best sites for all of your training.

You need to develop progressive training environments that maximize repetitions, technical applications, and safety. The environment should be highly controlled and manageable for entry-level abilities. The environment should increase in complexity and realism as the abilities increase. You can also fabricate or develop training simulators and structures to help develop the foundational skills segments.

The department conducted heavy rescue extrication training using the municipal school district’s decommissioned bus. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)
The department conducted heavy rescue extrication training using the municipal school district’s decommissioned bus. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)

If the environment is established, then you can start evaluating the equipment needs. Equipment can be challenging because it has to be commensurate with the course design. That often does not align with the organizational resources. For example, a department may have rope rescue capabilities designed to support a mission in which four to six rescuers are on rope and can develop “X” systems. But, if you’re attempting to conduct a training course in which 20 of your members are performing rope rescue skills, you are inadequately equipped. This is where you can look at some options that we’ve already touched on:

Option 1: Contact other departments with additional resources, and make the training session or course a joint venture. This can work out well for myriad reasons:

  • You are developing interoperability with surrounding agencies;
  • You are developing equipment familiarization between agencies;
  • You are building strong mutual-aid relationships;
  • You are identifying weak points within the organizations operationally and logistically; and
  • You can create joint solutions to augment one another’s weak points.

Option 2: Contact your local equipment dealers and manufacturers. Request product support for your training. You cannot ride this horse forever without some monetary investment at some point. But most dealers and manufacturers are happy to expose potential buyers to available resources. This is a good practice to apply under any circumstance because it allows your organization and personnel to get hands-on time with the latest and greatest gear. Product evaluations should always be conducted prior to investment when possible.

The department conducted structural collapse training at an acquired structure slated for demolition. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)
The department conducted structural collapse training at an acquired structure slated for demolition. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)

Option 3: Seek funding. This one can be a little more difficult, and it segues into the overall funding challenge.

Challenge 3: Funding – covering the costs

We’ve already covered this a bit with creative partnerships to offset expenses. However, there is another potential opportunity to offset cost.

OSHA standards require companies with target hazards or activities such as excavation and trenching, fall hazards, and confined space to have specific rescue capabilities in place. This includes a rescue-ready team that is fully equipped and trained to execute a timely rescue. There are a lot of requirements connected to these standards, and most companies cannot comply internally. This means that they are relying on us – their emergency responders – to fulfill their obligation to safety.

There are many ways to conduct rope-rescue training, like using a rope course at a joint venture training ground designed for emergency services and oil and gas operators (left), working at existing municipal buildings for advanced rope training (center), and using of a fire-based training tower (right). (Photos/Dalan Zartman)
There are many ways to conduct rope-rescue training, like using a rope course at a joint venture training ground designed for emergency services and oil and gas operators (left), working at existing municipal buildings for advanced rope training (center), and using of a fire-based training tower (right). (Photos/Dalan Zartman)

Part of the standard requirements state that these companies must make their sites and facilities or similar training locales available for training to the agencies providing their rescue services. Those rescue services must be equipped and trained.

In many situations, these companies providing the financial and physical resources for these requirements are more cost-effective when directed at the emergency response agency, meaning it is cheaper and easier for them to facilitate your operation than creating one of their own. Identifying these companies in your district and starting a proactive dialogue regarding their rescue service provision can often lead to fantastic partnerships that benefit everyone involved.

Enhancing your tech rescue training

If you need more detailed guidance on how to apply these resources or options for tech rescue training, connect with neighboring agencies to see what they are doing for training or reach out to me for additional help.

Train hard and stay safe!

Editor's Note: What's your favorite or most challenging tech rescue discipline to cover in training? Share in the comments below or at editor@firerescue1.com

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