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Training for technical search operations.

Training for Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) in the UK

USAR in the UK Fire and Rescue Service (FRS) has undergone some dramatic changes over the last few years. Given that the formal introduction of the capability didn’t start until after the events of 9/11, the capability has never truly reached a position of steady state.

This is not necessarily a bad thing as the capability continues to adapt to the changing model of risk as well as the challenges that all UK FRS face in providing operational response to meet local requirements and the expectation to be able to work in a coordinated national response to a potential large scale incident.

The initial implementation of the USAR capability resulted in most FRS hosting USAR creating a dedicated full time provision.

This allowed personnel to commit to the initial acquisition of the skills required to ensure competence across the wide range of operations that USAR encompasses.

As the capability embedded itself into FRS many UK USAR team members have become extremely skilled, in some cases now being regarded as class leading exponents in their areas of expertise putting the UK USAR capability amongst the most proficient in the world.

There’s no doubt that the safety of all emergency responders has significantly increased by having personnel with these skill sets and equipment available when required and that the FRS is capable of undertaking operations that would have been previously unachievable – or more likely would have been attempted but by placing firefighters and associated personnel at far higher risk.

Let’s be honest though; the skills of a USAR technician are not required often and there has been a realisation that a dedicated USAR team is an expensive and relatively little used capability.

Use of Petrogen hot cutting equipment at an exercise.

Use of Petrogen hot cutting equipment at an exercise.

Whilst that does not in any way reduce the amount of training required to maintain competency for USAR, the USAR team quickly became where many other areas of technical rescue were also housed.

This makes absolute sense; there are many overlaps between USAR and other areas of technical rescue. As such, there are economies to gained in placing these skill sets in the same personnel under the banner of a Technical / Specialist Rescue / Operations Team. The names of these teams are as varied as the skills they encompass.

These economies are realised not only in the smaller number of personnel requiring training in operational areas that are particularly intensive but also in the smaller provision of operational equipment and personal protective equipment that needs to be issued to one location rather than several.

It is fair to say that maintaining competencies for the many aspects of technical rescue that can include not only USAR but also rope, confined space, trench and water rescue is a challenge. Add to that many FRS have also included other national resilience capabilities such as High Volume Pumping and specific skill sets that allow the provision of specialist vehicles such as rescue boats, quad bikes, tele-handlers and fork lift trucks, means this challenge is only increasing.

More recently, as financial pressures have started to have greater effect, some FRS now require their USAR / Technical Rescue teams to also maintain operational capability for firefighting and other core skills.

The challenge increases again.

It is in creating a system that will provide initial acquisition, development and then maintenance of a huge number of competencies across this wide range of activities that the challenge of training presents itself.

Expanding on that it can be seen that this challenge comes in several forms.

  • Developing a system that can provide initial technical rescue skills acquisition to competent firefighters.
  • Ensuring that there is a mechanism for the development of these newly acquired technical rescue skills to a point of competence.
  • Ensuring that, once competence is attained, its continuing maintenance can be achieved across the wide range of technical rescue skills.
  • Accounting for the additional requirement to maintain competence in core fighting skills whilst undertaking the above.

In meeting the above challenges there is also the need to consider the various scenarios that FRS will be in.

For example, a Service moving to a structure combining technical rescue with core firefighting skills may need to develop many personnel quickly and will initially need a course like structure to deal with larger numbers of trainees. However; once a team is established or for Services already in this position, this training is likely only required for low numbers of personnel to account for succession planning.

It must also be considered that the training needs exist not just for those acquiring technical rescue skills; there is also the reintroduction and maintenance of firefighting core skills to individuals who, in some cases, have been dedicated full time USAR technicians for a period in the region of 12 years.

Training in the use of a disc cutter to separate lumps of concrete still connected by their steel reinforcing.

Training in the use of a disc cutter to separate lumps of concrete still connected by their steel reinforcing.

An additional issue that needs to be considered is that the solution will look different to each FRS.

The core firefighting skills will be the same in each service for those in the technical rescue team as for those not; indeed these will be broadly similar across all FRS.

The USAR specific skills as detailed by the National Resilience model will also be the same as this is an interoperable model that spans all the UK FRS hosting USAR and, as such, has a defined set of learning outcomes.

That, however, is where the similarities across services start to diminish. The specifics of what additional technical rescue skills each team take on will vary depending on what capabilities each FRS wish to provide. This will be dictated by the risk management plan that each service follows.

As a result, equipment and systems of work that FRS implement should provide appropriate operational response to the potential incidents that may occur in that service’s area and should be designed as such.

This raises an interesting question in regard to how many FRS have effectively undertaken that process and presently employ systems and equipment that actually do meet their requirements or, as is far more commonly seen, are maintaining an ill-fitting solution to problems that do not or may never exist. This happens usually because either an ‘off the peg’ product is procured from a training provider without any real consideration as to the solution needed or because the development of a capability is left to an individual without the ability or support to fully develop a bespoke and integrated response to the risks that exist. In many such examples the result is an operational response that is training intensive, equipment rather than system based and often not compatible with other service provision. It is also likely that the response is little used, although this is less of a measure as lack of use does not mean the potential need for use is not present. If this sounds familiar, then a re-examination of the rationale behind your operational capability is probably justified and, unfortunately, this problem is not uncommon in specialist areas of response. This issue, whilst representing a digression from the topic of this article is most certainly worthy of further investigation.

Training in the use of the Stanley DS11 hydraulic chainsaw to ‘clean’ cut through steel reinforced concrete.

Training in the use of the Stanley DS11 hydraulic chainsaw to ‘clean’ cut through steel reinforced concrete.

This is sometimes also cited as a problem with the UK National USAR response. If this capability were to be looked at from the needs of individual FRS local response then that would be a valid statement; however, the USAR response is designed to meet a large scale incident with the associated long term presence and multi-service response. This model of response requires coordination at a national level to ensure interoperability in both equipment provision and associated systems of work and the training model that supports that needs to be effective for all FRS hosting USAR.

The training model is presently undergoing a significant change. Until this year much of the training for the national USAR capability was undertaken at the Fire Service College under the coordination of National Resilience.

This structure is now changing to a capability coordinated by a lead Fire Authority – in this case Merseyside FRS.

The new training model, which at the time of this article being written, is still in development is investigating the use of a distributed training provision with those FRS that have the capability to host training for elements of USAR being utilised as regional centres.

This model has several advantages in that it:

Maintains the involvement of USAR trainers across the UK FRS.

Reduces personnel extraction times and travel requirements for training.

Increases the number of training locations adding to the variety of facilities.

Does not lose the opportunity for USAR personnel to train with other FRS staff they may encounter at an incident.

The content of this training will still be directed by the needs of the national capability under the coordination of the lead authority ensuring that the same USAR training objectives are met, irrespective of both the service hosting the training and any additional skills each FRS may choose to bolt on to their USAR team.

For more information, go to www.hantsfire.gov.uk

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Phil Crook has been a member of Hampshire Fire & Rescue Service for 28 years. During that period he has been a member of the UK international Search and Rescue Team for 26 years with overseas operational deployments to Turkey and Iran and multiple training deployments.

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