The Training Officer and Using Scenarios in Rescue Training

By Bob Twomey

In our training as rescuers, we go through classes, such as contained in the Technical Rescue standards used in North Carolina. As part of the certification in such classes, rescuers are required to pass “practical skills” components of the subject matter. This, of course, is a good thing, as the intention of this process is to show proficiency in the application of the class skills. If the skills are remembered for future applications in the “real” rescue world, then all is well; we learned, we tested, passed, and became certified in a particular area of rescue. 

But what happens if we rarely train on the learned skills, or if we rarely get the chance to use this knowledge in real rescues? It is a well-documented fact that knowledge and associated skills deteriorate over time if not refreshed, practiced, or utilized. But how do we need to refresh this knowledge to keep it current, or “fresh in our minds” should the need arise to perform rescues?

As a rope rescue instructor at the DuPont Rescue Experience, (a wonderful technical search and rescue school held annually at the DuPont State Recreational Forest) I have had the opportunity to set up training scenarios based upon actual rescues performed at DuPont State Forest. The rescuers participating in the classes we offered all possessed ropes, rigging and mountain rescue technical standards and skills. Each scenario presented its own unique challenges, based upon the surroundings and physical features at each rescue site. 

38.3 WINTER23 Safety Prevention Photos 1
Rescuing victim off top of water tank

It was rewarding to see that the class came up with various ways to perform the same rescues. All were safe; some methodologies were very simple; others were more complex…but each way to do the rescues was effective. This showed me that the technical skills previously taught in a variety of classes over the last few years at the students’ home departments, were not only remembered, but were utilized very effectively as the problem scenarios were presented to them. To me, this is very rewarding and gratifying, as this is what rescue is all about! As I have preached for years in my articles, this “tools in the rescue toolbox” approach is the only REAL way to perform rescue. Knowledge, along with skills and the ability to apply them properly….IS rescue. (Photo 1 Img. 0844: “Rescuing victim off top of water tank”)

Utilizing ground-based lowering system on water tank rescue
Utilizing ground-based lowering system on water tank rescue

So, what should you as a training officer strive for in your rescue scenarios? You should try to challenge your team with problems with significant complexity so as to make them think HOW to apply their knowledge to perform a safe rescue. This means possibly limited anchors in which to attach lowering systems, or to have a very limited work area in which to rig for a rescue. Perhaps the “mindset” of the top rescuers performing all the rigging for the rescue when 10 members may be on the ground, with ample anchors, who could do the rigging for a raise or lower, but, due to “tunnel vision”, overlooks this obvious method of rescue. What I am saying here is this: just because rescuers ascend a tower or rock does not mean they have to do all the work. If all the natural or artificial anchors you need are on the ground, and a sufficient number of rescuers (on the ground) can rig a mechanical advantage hauling system or a braking system to perform the rescue, why make the top team do all the work? Yet many times, the obvious is often overlooked. (Photo , Img. 1352: “Utilizing ground-based lowering system on water tank rescue”)

Using a crane along with rescue standards to perform a rescue off of rock crusher
Using a crane along with rescue standards to perform a rescue off of rock crusher

A rescue scenario should, of course, be realistic, but it should contain variables that require the team to think of the best and easiest way to do the rescue, and to be able to select a method that will be safe and be performed within the standards the rescuers learned in class. Over time and through experience, rescuers learn many ways to rig rescues that are safe and efficient. The training officer’s challenge is to create scenarios that force the team to select from all their various knowledge, skills and equipment, the easiest, safest, and simplest method to perform any given rescue. The idea here is to avoid the “cookie cutter” mentality in applying rescue knowledge. It is to make them pull from many different skill sets the specific skills needed to perform the task presented to them. Make your team THINK! Make them have to analyze the situation, think about the gear they will need to do the rescue, what hazards are present and how to mitigate them, both for their safety and that of the victim(s)….and then just do it. 

I have seen, both in training and in real rescues, teams analyze a situation so hard that they miss the obvious and “over rig” a rescue to the point that the actual rescue took three or four times the amount of time really necessary to do the job. Part of this is tunnel vision, part is not thinking about how to keep the rescue as simple as possible, some is from a lack of experience (which will only come with time and continuous training), and some is from thinking that the cookie cutter approach must be used (after all, this is how we trained in the classes we took, right? etc.). (Photo3, Img. 1429: “Using a crane along with rescue standards to perform a rescue off of rock crusher”)

Do you see where I am going with all this? Rescue is a technical art. It is a blend of knowledge, skills, abilities, equipment, training, and experience. For the newer rescuer, and sometimes for the older, experienced rescuer, this can be a daunting task. Therefore, it is the Training Officer’s responsibility to present realistic training that will challenge your team yet allow them to use their learned skills in a common-sense approach. By this I mean teach rescuers all that you can, allow them to learn all the rescue skills that they can from as many schools as possible (over time), train often, have the team critique themselves constructively utilizing after-action reviews (AAR’s) and gain their self-confidence…and then take pride in your folks when you see them do the job professionally.  Then……when you can tell your team members “well done” after their rescues, then you can know you did your job right, too.

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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