Using your equipment and your imagination

CarolinaFireJournal - BOB TWOMEY
04/26/2010 -
In previous articles, I have gone into great detail about standards for rescue, equipment uses, procedures, standard operating guidelines (SOGs), safety guidelines  — especially around water-based and high-angle rescues and helicopter rescue support — and all the things a rescuer must know to be, well, a rescuer. All of this is fitting and proper. It is how we stay alive as we assist our victims in a myriad of circumstances we encounter. These are the “tools of our trade.” It is who and what we are. image

However, I have also stressed the importance of learning to “think outside the box” during those sometimes very usual, even extreme, of circumstances that we find ourselves in during rescue assistance. Remember the article about training rescuers to think on their own, using their imaginations along with all the “tools” in the rescue toolbox? I called it common sense, along with knowledge, skills, and abilities coupled with a little physics and hard-earned experience. That has not changed. I have also said that “successful rescues come from rescuers being able to objectively study a situation, decide how to accomplish the overall rescue, select the tools needed, and available, and properly apply them in such a fashion that your victim is SAFELY removed from a situation of peril or imminent danger, to one of safety.”

A good example of this would be a Wilderness Ranger, way back in the middle of nowhere, faced with a challenging rescue with what equipment is on his back and what’s in his head. What are you going to do? You’re going to do your job, the best you can with what is available!

That may be a bit melodramatic, but you get the point. In the more localized rescue situations, we sometimes just seem to maintain “tunnel vision,” without the ability, or leeway, to look at new or different technologies to accomplish that rescue safer or more efficiently. Many agencies now have come to realize that it is okay to let their rescuers use their heads in situations instead of constantly relying on rigid standards.

A good example would be departments doing away with certain “standard operating procedures” (SOPs) in lieu of newer, more thought-provoking “standard operating guidelines (SOGs), which allow for reasonable, safe applications of equipment, skills and abilities based upon the current situations in a given rescue scene. This is what we all train for: the ability to get the job done as safely and quickly as reasonably possible. It’s called “rescue.”

Substantial flooding occurred in the western North Carolina mountains this past September. There was 15 to 20 inches of rainfall in 5.5 days. On the fourth night of this storm, the skies just opened up, dumping over six inches of rain in our county in five hours, on already saturated terrain. Our department was called out to perform extensive neighborhood and rural area house searches and evacuations during the flooding. In much of the flatter areas, “backwater” from floodplains spread into the known problem areas, with which we have become very familiar over the years.

The water averaged two to four feet in depth, thus we were able to drive our military 6x6 “deuce” into most areas to effect the evacuations. However, the air temperature and dew points began to converge as the night wore on, causing light fog to develop over the floodwater, rendering typical searchlights and driving lights less effective at seeing any distance.

In the interest of rescuer and passenger safety, I utilized our local Helicopter SAR Team’s night vision goggles (NVG‘s) and FLIR thermal camera in the truck to navigate through the fog and darkness, accessing house after house, street after street safely, and with the added benefit of being able to see all that was going on around us. I could clearly see people, pets, livestock, debris, fences, driveways, flooded roadways, mailboxes, power poles, roadside ditches and water currents. Maneuvering the truck forward or backward was not a problem. In backing, I would focus the NVG’s into the rearview mirrors and was able to see all that was behind me, clearly. I did have to ask the rescuers on the truck to turn off their searchlights a few times so the NVG’s would work more efficiently. A few comments were circulated as to whether my elevator was making it to the top floor, but when we had navigated miles of flooded roads all night long without any incidents, there was no question the technologies worked well for us.

I point out this particular use of NVGs and thermal cameras in flooding to you for several reasons. First, if you can train efficiently and properly on the use of this equipment — especially the driving part using the NVG system — it allows you another “tool in the rescue toolbox” to use for rescuer and victim safety. Next, it allows you to operate outside of the traditional way(s) of doing things, not for the purpose of just doing it differently, but for doing it more safely.

There should always be a reasonable, logical, realistic methodology for doing rescues a different way. If there is, then try it. If it consistently works safely and successfully, you should consider this “new way” of doing a rescue as a part of your SOGs. It is possible that a newly adopted rescue methodology won’t have a “standard.” So what? Some things in rescue service don’t have standards. But does it work? Is it safe? Remember, it’s what rescuers do: we learn skills; we apply them correctly; we learn to think; and we gain and apply experience. Then we can remove people from peril to safety while giving ourselves and our victims the best safety margins possible.

Here is another example. Over the last 14 years, our department has integrated outside helicopter aviation resources into our search and rescue (SAR) protocols. Having had the unusual benefit of skilled commercial and private pilots, who have an interest and knowledge of volunteers in the rescue service, combined with their willingness to be a part of assisting in rescue support, we have greatly enhanced our department’s abilities to perform SAR activities.

Air support in relation to searches is the best example. Utilizing a helicopter crew to help locate lost persons, combined with the latest search management technologies and detection probabilities, has given us a greater capability to find subjects faster, quicker, and often much safer for the rescuers. This working relationship has given us another “tool in the toolbox” to exercise when conditions warrant. When state resources are unavailable, we can have a local resource to turn to for assistance.


Utilizing a helicopter crew to help locate lost persons, combined with the latest search management technologies and detection probabilities, has given us a greater capability to find subjects faster, quicker, and often much safer for the rescuers.

Were there critics debating the validity of adopting this approach to add to our services? Certainly! But again, so what? The quality of available outside aviation resources was carefully observed; the potential values and risks were studied — remember risk assessment? — and the decision was made to move carefully, methodically, and legally, towards utilizing this “non-traditional resource” into our SOGs. It has worked very well, for years, without fail.

I know there are departments out there who have adopted a variety of rescue resources into their SOGs over the years, such as trained equestrian teams or ATV teams utilized in lost person searches, or trained divers integrated into SAR activities. It is about rescuers and others, who may or may not be “official rescuers,” yet who possess the skilled capabilities to help us under specific circumstances in our work. It’s also about networking, and finding those who can provide a needed service safely, under ICS systems, as a respected “team member” that our victims might live to see another day and the rescuers return home safely, uninjured (or worse), and with a sense that we made a real difference that day. It’s about working through the liability issues so prevalent in the rescue service and society today, because we have chosen to utilize an “outside resource not affiliated with a certified department.” Somewhere along the way, we — society and our legal system — have forgotten that there exists those individuals who also want to try to make a difference and who possess the abilities to MAKE that difference. It can all be so confusing and complicated, yet, it can be done.

It’s called thinking outside the box. The decision to do so is up to you.

Bob Twomey is the current chief and founder of the NC High Level Extraction Rescue Team, Inc. a helicopter SAR team based in Transylvania County. He is an active member and past chief of Brevard Rescue Squad, and has been active in SAR for 33 years. Twomey is a NC Fire & Rescue Commission certified rescue instructor. He can be reached at 828-884-7174 or by email at [email protected].
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