To the rescue

To the rescue

This article, Bob Rea QFSM’s fourth exclusive piece for FME, begins with him thinking about the effects of the devastating earthquake which struck Turkey and Syria in February this year and reflecting on the impacts of training programmes he has been responsible for. Recognising how some of the students who have passed through his training programmes have been able to render aid in these events. 

During my recent programme management in the USA, one of the suite of programmes covered specialist rescue, training in:

  • Rope Rescue
  • Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) 
  • Train Rescue

This was an eight-week programme, which was designed to develop students with little or no experience in these subjects to being able to operate safely in the challenging environments these rescues present. These areas are of particular interest to me, stirring passion to deliver the highest standard of training, expanding hazard awareness of the students to ensure that they were able to identify hazards in the real rescue environments and competence in the techniques to locate, gain access and rescue entrapped casualties. I spent time working with the delivery team to design a sequential development programme, insisting on expanding the FEMA model for the USAR training to include the technical search discipline. 

I see this technical search as an essential element of a USAR technician’s competence, as it is the initial phase of the rescue and a skill that requires continual practice to maintain and continue to develop enhanced competence. The skills required in this discipline use simple techniques to operating technical equipment for listening and visual investigation of void spaces. 

We followed the FEMA model after this, spending time looking at the built environment, engineering systems and safety before moving to the physical skills of:

  • breaching and breaking – creating access to the casualties, using a blend of demolition tools and hot cutting equipment
  • shoring – stabilising buildings using both pneumatic/metal shoring and timber shoring,
  • lifting and moving – the art of controlling and moving large loads safely using simple levers and rollers, through rope systems to using heavy equipment.

To ensure that the programme was being delivered to my exacting standards both in content and safety I would regularly attend class to observe. The lead instructor and I are close friends from the fire service family, bonded further by our passion for USAR, so he would smile when I entered the room.

I found it difficult not to be directly involved with the delivery and developed a habit of pacing at the back of the room, which became a signal to the instructor that I felt I had something to add to the session. The lead instructor would say ‘Come on up Bob,
I can see you are desperate to get involved and if you stay there, you will wear a groove in the carpet’. I later overheard him talking with his company CEO the Father of USAR, ‘Bob forgets nothing, he is an amazing font of knowledge, including minute details’ that made me smile as it was a great complement from a person I admire and respect. 

A key challenge whenever I have delivered USAR training, is getting the students to accept the risks they may be exposed to and the levels of PPE they should wear to protect themselves. This is especially difficult when the weather is hot, training days for this programme were regularly 330C plus. The cause of this is a lack of risk awareness, which is the same in all industries when new personnel begin. It is only over time that risk awareness improves, as competence and experience increases. To help begin students on a safe learning journey, I insist on, as a minimum, respiratory protection with a particulate filter able to capture the fine dust and spores encountered when buildings collapse, eye protection, gloves, protective boots and long trousers and sleeves. 

As mentioned in a previous article during this suite of programmes, cultural differences provide a significant challenge in managing risk. I had to manage three cultures and their different risk appetites, from the perceived ‘Ultra Safe’ UK to the risk hungry. In training, students see the likelihood of sustaining an injury as minimal, as the instructors will be overseeing their operational actions, have risk assessed equipment, venues and activities, they feel ‘safe’. 

To illustrate the potential of harm being caused to them, I ask them to reflect on the devastating effects of prolonged silica dust exposure on the rescue teams at collapsed structure incidents. 

Setting the standards of performance and protection is essential throughout training, as this helps establish good habits. Making it more likely that these habits will always be employed in the ‘real world’ and thus reduce rescuer exposures to hazards and improving their long-term health. It is vitally important for rescuers and their managers to establish good behaviours and encourage other attendees to follow suit. With the advent of rescuer cancers being more prevalent than in many other careers, protection is a form of prevention and as instructors it is our duty to develop these behaviours. 

To culminate the programme, we designed an extended realistic simulated multi-casualty collapsed structure rescue exercise scenario on one of the ‘bespoke’ exercise venues at the training location to provide an unrivalled experiential learning opportunity, testing the students in as close to the real environment as possible. The venue simulates a range of collapsed concrete buildings surrounding a ‘Real’ rubble pile, covering a city block in size, where casualties can be placed in, on and under the rubble, allowing the students to apply the knowledge, skills and understanding of USAR operations. The students encounter all the elements that have been discussed and trained for through the delivery programme and they are required to undertake appropriate mitigation and safely rescue the casualties. 

When an earthquake strikes, I always follow the event closely, seeing if any of the personnel I have trained attend. On this occasion I was watching the news and following social media and saw that the UK International Search and Rescue (ISAR) team were being mobilised. This filled me with pride, especially when they were reported to have used their capabilities to successfully rescue persons trapped within the devastation. The realisation that the training I began, delivered and managed was being used at such a disastrous event with great success, is a great feeling. I recognised several of the team who had directly received training from both my team of tutors and I. What amplified my feelings of pride was when I received a message from me lead instructor in the USA, who sent me pictures of the Middle Eastern students preparing to deploy to Turkey to provide support to those in need. 

Both he and I exchanged calls sharing in the success of the programme and realising that the training we had delivered was making a difference. Giving others the benefit of our knowledge, skills, understanding and experience ‘Giving Back’.