The all-volunteer rescue squad

CarolinaFireJournal - By Bob Twomey
By Bob Twomey
10/22/2013 -

Things have changed for the long-time all-volunteer rescue squads, at least in North Carolina, over the last 15 years. As I approach 40 years as a volunteer in the rescue service this coming December, I have personally experienced these changes, both good and bad. As an Area Director for the N.C. Association of Rescue and EMS and a state and IFSAC certified rescue instructor for the last 30 of those 40 years, I have had the privilege of seeing change first hand, and instructing rescuers all across the state to embrace that change and learn.

Change in about every aspect of life, including rescue service, is inevitable. Change as it relates to new skills and rescue technologies is, of course, proper and needed if we are to provide the best service possible to those who place their trust in us when they are in peril. After all, we are rescuers, the ones local governments depend on in service to our communities.


Some of the changes affecting local volunteer rescue squads have been out of the control of anybody. Examples include state and local economies and the financial impacts on rescue squads and their members; squad members themselves as they continue to try to earn a living and support their families while serving their communities; the financial capabilities of local squads as local government funds have been stretched to the limit; reduced departmental fund raising capabilities as people struggle financially in severely weakened economies; reduced local tax bases as industries have closed or moved overseas and other factors that impact local financial support for rescue squads.

Other factors affecting the traditional roles of local volunteer rescue squads have been following a national trend for some years now; that of rescue services being absorbed, taken over or combined with the fire service, with rescue squads being increasingly tasked more now with EMS and medical first responder roles. This includes squads now being more of an “EMS back-up” role to local units of government.

To begin to understand this general, progressive change of responsibilities, one must look much deeper into the many issues behind these changes. Whether these changes locally for you are good or bad, right or wrong, is not the intent of this article. The intent is to analyze what, over time, has caused a shift of traditional rescue squad services to the fire service. And for a long-time, for this dyed-in- the-wool, hard core rescue man, this has taken some serious effort on my part.

The fire service in the United States is, without a doubt, the best in the world. Nationwide, the financial backing and political support for the fire service is second to none. Fire science, education, credentialing, and certification of fire technologies are proven. In North Carolina, the number of fire departments, both municipal and rural, substantially outnumbers the rescue squads. The number of volunteer fire personnel is easily five times the number of rescuers. The funding of local fire services is, almost universally, supported by fire district tax assessments, thus at least some, if not all, annual fire departmental funding is guaranteed. This alone allows for the proper and consistent purchase of equipment and trucks to allow for the best service possible to our citizens. Likewise, great emphasis is placed locally on fire departments that can improve their “fire service response rating,” thus reducing homeowners’ insurance premiums. Let’s face it — money talks, and it is what it is.

Many years ago across North Carolina rescue squads were a common fixture in most counties. They provided all types of rescue services, including vehicle extrication, farm and machinery rescue, high-angle rescue, trench rescue, confined space rescue, structural response rescue, water rescue of all types, search and rescue, and traditional medical first response and EMS back-up. Some rescue squads received local funding, but many also had to rely on local fund-raisers just to remain in business. I have been a member of rescue squads who have had to do just that to survive. It affected the available training time for members and took inordinate amounts of time away from family and work just to be able to be a volunteer and to provide rescue service to our citizens. Many of these rescue squads no longer exist; some have been combined with local fire services and some have “gone all medical” as their traditional rescue roles were given to fire departments. Local units of governments disbanded others and still others simply went out of business for many reasons discussed earlier.

Some rescue squads, however, have thrived despite the changes over the last 15 years. How? By specializing in specific fields of rescue and being better at it than anyone else locally. They have also thrived by acknowledging and accepting the fact that things change — good, bad or indifferent — and by making working relationships with local fire departments a priority. As I have stated many times in my articles over the years, the patient or victim really couldn’t care less what color your turnout gear is or what name is on your truck. And when it’s all said and done, does it really matter?

In 40 years, I have rarely, and I do mean rarely, seen rescues where there wasn’t plenty to be done on scene by all present, fire or rescue or EMS personnel. There is another thing that makes a big difference locally: departments should respect each other’s existence and capabilities. I can assure you, there are VERY FEW departments in this state that can “do it all” or even afford to be able to “do it all.” Why do you think “mutual aid” response protocols exist?

Local governments should beware of rejecting some departments in favor of others. While “span of control” is often a management issue where tax money is used to support a county or city department, due to “accountability to citizens,” rescue is, in itself, much more than that. Quality rescue service involves recognizing and utilizing the service(s) best able to meet the local needs. But, this also means that for the local departments where rescue is part of their responsibilities, they need to “be able to produce.”

Over the years “rescue” has become increasingly complex, with areas of rescue that were previously considered “general rescue” now becoming “specialty rescue.” Examples include hybrid vehicle extrication, heavy truck and machinery rescue, structural search, rescue and heavy lifting, hazmat response, and for sure aviation resources in search and rescue. It seems as if everything in rescue is now a specialty area. This is all the more reason for rescue squads to specialize in services they provide. So I say it again: no department can be specialized in everything or “do it all.” There is room at the top for every department, even local volunteer rescue squads.

In today’s fast-paced, litigious, “government owes me something — entitlement oriented society,” ALL of us — rescue or fire — must work together. It’s who and what we are. There is room at the top for all of us.

Bob Twomey is the current chief and founder of the North Carolina High Level Extraction Rescue Team, Inc., a volunteer helicopter search and rescue support team based in Transylvania County, N.C. He is the senior helicopter pilot for Wolf Tree Aviation, LLC operating out of Transylvania Community Airport. He also serves as Deputy Chief for Training in Brevard Rescue Squad. He has been active in SAR for 37 years. Twomey can be reached at 828-884-7174 or [email protected].
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