Passing the Torch

In the rescue service, like any other profession, there comes a time when older rescuers — those who have seen it all and who have been around the block more than a few times — may wonder what is to become of them as their department progresses and things change.


Departmental response protocols change, call types and volumes change most likely, new members join the department, rescue techniques and equipment change — and then sometimes for the old rescuers the inevitable happens: who am I anymore, and what can I provide or contribute to the department now that so many things have changed?

Older, experienced rescuers I have spoken with this past year seem to convey that they feel they cannot contribute to their department like they used to. Men and women who have been in the rescue service for 20, 30, 40 or more years sometimes find it harder to participate in the training and on calls like they used to. Guess how I know this? December 2019 will be 46 years in volunteer rescue.

These older rescuers, sometimes known as the “old F.A.R.T.s” (fire and rescue techs) are beginning to wear out. The mind is still willing to jump right in, that is, to be the first rescuer over the side of the cliff or waterfall, or the first rescuer into the river or floodwater, or to be the first to grab the gear to rig for a high-level rescue, or to be in the first SAR team into the wood — yet the body just doesn’t seem to work like it used to for some reason. Hmmm —imagine that. Senior rescuers’ bodies are wearing out! Our bodies change; they get older, joints get weaker, things hurt more than they used to. Hell, I have things that hurt now that I didn’t even know I had!

But take heart! The old guys are the ones who formed departments, worked very hard, long hours keeping them up and running administratively and financially, who trained long hours well before there were ever any rescue standards for training and certifications, and who, like in our department’s early days, sometimes worked all night on repairing rescue equipment so it would be ready for the next rescue and then went to their regular jobs the following morning. They did this because it had to be done. There were no big budgets like today, where agencies can have equipment worked on by vendor/contractors, and many volunteer rescue squads were NOT supported by tax revenues, like fire taxes do today. We held auctions twice a year and bake sales just to have enough money to operate on. Members took money out of their own pockets to buy equipment or purchase parts to repair trucks. It was a different time 40 years ago. How many fire departments had old or surplused fuel oil delivery trucks converted into tankers, or retired service delivery vans converted into first-out rescue vehicles? My department did; we had an old bread delivery van we rebuilt from the inside out and made it into a really efficient first-out rescue truck for vehicle accidents and extrications. Damn that truck would run, and we used it for years on many vehicle rescues! We didn’t know to think any different; we were grateful to get decent trucks we could convert into rescue service and we were proud of them. It’s just the way things were back then.

So why do I write an article now that is not the usual technical or “how to” article?

Because the older F.A.R.T.s are the ones who can pass on years of experience and knowledge to younger volunteers. Knowledge, skills, abilities (KSAs) and experience are the backbone of the rescue service. As I have said many times in the past, you don’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been or where you are now. For you older rescuers, who may unfortunately have to be slowing down a bit now because you have worn yourselves out physically. Remember this: you have knowledge, skills, abilities (KSAs) and the experience that the younger generation of rescuers doesn’t. Does that mean that we just ride out into the pasture as forgotten “has beens”? I hope not! We have a moral rescue responsibility to make sure new and younger rescuers get the types of KSAs that we have, so that they can gain experience through what we have learned (often the hard way) and who will continue to pass the “rescue torch” on for generations. No one can ever take away all that we have learned over our careers, volunteer or paid. And while technology has given our departments newer and safer rescue methodologies, physics, along with common sense, still must be understood and prevail in rescue work today.

Training officers should see to it that older rescue skills are a part of today’s “modern training.” While I teach the now-standard TR Rescue curricula, I still always find time to show the younger generation how to use a porta-power to pop open jammed doors during extrication, or how to safely use a vehicle winch to pull seats back to gain more room to extricate a crash victim, or how to construct a timber tripod with mechanical advantage to perform heavy lifting. These “old ways” of doing things still work, and I show these and other things to younger rescuers to provide them with “rescue tools in the toolbox,” which ultimately become alternative methods of rescue when needed. This is what the older rescuers can contribute.

Finally, older rescuers who have “been there and done that” many times need to assure that the newer generation has the right mindset to be a rescuer. I have long been known for saying things the way they really are, and it’s this: to be a rescuer in service to others is to devote the tremendous time and energy required to be safe, knowledgeable and effective. It means long hours of dedicated training, hard work, selfless service, often time away from family, and to never give up. Someone’s life is dependent upon you. Perhaps this is why volunteerism and retaining members in rescue agencies in this country today is becoming so difficult. To become a rescuer takes years; it isn’t acquired overnight or by taking a few rescue courses. It just doesn’t work this way. Older rescuers should help guide and encourage younger rescuers along their journey. There is really no other way to do it. It can’t be done any other way.

So, for the “old F.A.R.T.s, it’s OK to slow down, especially when the mind is willing, but the body isn’t. Mitigate those feelings by doing the things mentioned above. Trust me on this: by doing so, you will still be making more of an impact than you think.

Until next time, be safe!

Bob Twomey has been in the volunteer rescue service for 46 years, having served on five Rescue Squads from the coast to the mountains. He is currently a member of Transylvania County Rescue Squad, past Chief and Training Chief, an EMT for 45 years, and is an IFSAC and OSFM certified Rescue Instructor. Bob has been active in SAR, Mountain Rescue, and teaches high-level rescue. He is the chief pilot of Wolf Tree Aviation, and flies helicopter searches and rescue support locally. He is a Crew Chief for the NC Forest Service. He can be reached at 828-884-7174 or at

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