By Author(s): Tom Pendley 
Published Tuesday, May 29, 2012
| From the July 2012  Issue of FireRescue 
Editor's note: For a free multimedia presentation of three technical rescue skill evaluations, click on one of the following:
Technical Rescue Skill Evaluation, Standard Web Version 
Technical Rescue Skill Evaluation, iPad Version 
In 2009, the Phoenix (Ariz.) regional special operations leaders held a meeting to address concerns about how shrinking budgets might impact our ability to conduct continuing education. This was at a time when departments were concerned that their training budgets might not survive the carving knife and that special ops training was going to be severely impacted.
Much of the discussion revolved around how many instructors each department would be able to contribute to regional training. Some suggested that we simply cut back on training. Others suggested we train more.
Another suggestion: Use the current economic challenges as an opportunity to re-invent how we perform technical rescue training (TRT). The thought was that we could do a better job as an organization of defining just what we expect members to be responsible for in regard to fundamental skills. Once defined, we could then use our valuable training time to exercise those skills in scenario-based training. I decided to test this concept in my own department, and at least on a trial basis, it was a success.
The Scope of the Challenge
In the Phoenix regional system, we have more than 400 technical rescue technicians spread out over several different departments—that’s a big number when it comes to training challenges. Back in the 1990s, the regional TRT program was much smaller and therefore more manageable; however, the windfall of homeland security grants over the past decade has helped to swell the number of rescue companies and technicians to the size that it is today. So while the grant programs have vastly improved local response to all hazards and have filled many response gaps, the ongoing training commitment is daunting.
The Phoenix region is made up of career departments in which members are responsible for an ever-increasing base of skills and knowledge. They must train for and respond to emergency medical calls, structure fires, all manner of customer service calls as well as their specialties, such as hazmat and technical rescue.
From my perspective as an instructor and as a program manager, the main problem with technical rescue continuing education is that we haven’t done a good job of defining the expectations for rescuer proficiency. We do train frequently; every Tuesday is “TRT Tuesday, when our TRT crews attend regional training for three hours on a scheduled topic. Although TRT Tuesday does provide a structured training session, we’ve failed to specify the level of individual proficiency expected. For example, every rescue technician knows they need to be able to build a mechanical advantage haul system. They can perform the task, but we haven’t specified how proficient we want them to be.
Safety vs. Speed
Of course, proficiency in a given skill is crucial, but safety remains our top priority and should never be compromised for speed. However, rescue operations are time-sensitive and as such, it’s important for rescuers to have a sense of how long it takes them to perform a task and how their total time compares to the recognized standard.
When training, rescuers should first practice the given skill with the objective being to complete the task without making a mistake from start to finish. Once the rescuer reaches a basic competency level, they can work on their speed. The goal here is to keep the process clean and streamlined so efficiency improves. Through this process, rescuers develop muscle memory.
Eventually, rescuers will achieve a high level of competency or even mastery, which is the point where we no longer need to think about how to do a certain task because it’s essentially become automatic. As a result, the rescuer will be able to perform the given skills efficiently while at the same time dealing with the unique problems of a real emergency.
Note: Be careful if using a stopwatch to monitor your speed during training. I’ve seen the competitive nature of firefighters overcome reason to the point that they begin to cut corners and take unnecessary risks. It’s up to each member and the leaders to call “stop” the moment a rescuer is no longer operating within safe control.
Technically, the organization and the rescuer share responsibility for maintaining rescuer competency, but how does it work?
The fire service as an organization is responsible for providing high-quality initial training, all necessary equipment, accurate and up-to-date reference materials and the time and facilities to practice and hone our skills. The organization must also provide necessary structure to the program; however, the organization can’t generate competency in individual rescuers.
We as individual rescuers are responsible for knowing what proficiency level is required and for maintaining competency in those skills at minimum. But remember, it takes time and effort on the part of the rescuer to practice to the point of achieving competency or mastery. There is no other way.
Combining Skills & Procedures
To set expectations for competency, we must first define the clear overall objective of the given procedure and the key steps (enabling objectives) that must be accomplished to reach the overall objective. Because there are so many different rescue skills and procedures to follow, it makes sense to combine fundamental skills with basic procedures to help the rescuer develop competency.
To track individual progress, the Peoria (Ariz.) Fire Department (PFD) uses a form that’s similar to a National Registry skill station (Figure 1), which is familiar to the industry. The completed form also provides documentation of skill and competency levels met for each individual.
During my tests, my goal was to incorporate a number of fundamental skills (such as using the appropriate knot) into a simple procedure that’s familiar to the organization or region. This also allows for a demonstration of requisite knowledge as well as requisite skill.
Ultimately, the skill evaluation sheets can be placed into a task book, which provides an organizational framework of expectations for a particular specialty.
Evaluating the Rescuer(s)
Evaluation of skill competency is most reliable when evaluating an individual. If a particular skill is normally accomplished by a single person, it makes sense to evaluate the single person’s capability in completing that skill.
Of course, there are some procedures that are best accomplished by a team, such as erecting a set of raker shores. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suggests that a team of six trained and equipped rescuers should be able to prefabricate and install a set of solid-sole rakers in 35 minutes. (A list of build times for most shores can be found on pages 2–3 of the 2009 Shoring Operations Guide.)
A group evaluation is a bit more complicated than an individual evaluation. The goal is for the group to demonstrate proficiency with a procedure that requires all members to work together to complete a set of tasks. One good example: the confined space entry exercise. A crew of four must get two rescuers rigged and ready for entry. They must then set up the remote air, the intercom and the tag line for each rescuer. The system must be set up with safety checks, and the pre-entry checklist must be completed in less than 15 minutes. This is easy to accomplish—if each person knows their job.
When the Rescuer Does Not Pass
As previously mentioned, the PFD began a new trial skill evaluation program for rope rescue in 2009. There were three skill evaluations for which each rescuer was evaluated at least twice a year for three years. This was not considered a training session; each member either passed or did not meet the standard. The goal of this program was to raise competency and to define responsibility for establishing and meeting set standards.
Through this process, the PFD realized that most rescuers like the structure given by the evaluation program and enjoy demonstrating their proficiency. Rescuers like to be recognized as competent, and they especially like to know that the person belaying them (managing their safety line) is also competent.
Rescuers who have difficulty completing a particular skill or procedure in the set amount of time most likely haven’t been practicing and may not feel motivated to maintain their skills at the defined proficiency level. If a team member does not meet the standard on the first evaluation, we schedule a second evaluation on another day. We also make sure that the team member has the tools and opportunity to practice. If they do not pass a second time, we set up a plan to help them succeed.
In a few cases, members who struggle with an individual skill evaluation simply don’t want to make the commitment to maintain their skills and as a result, they choose to drop out of the program rather than expend the personal effort needed to meet the skill proficiency requirement.
It’s not necessary to have a defined set of consequences for those who don’t meet a set skill standard; however, if needed, the PFD will eventually suspend assignment pay and team qualification. Some departments may wish to take a different approach and reward members who do meet the standard, but it depends on what works best for your individual department.
Give It Back
It’s easy to train a group of firefighters to become rescue technicians. The initial training course is fun and challenging. The real challenge begins when you try to maintain rescue skills for the long haul. One solution to that issue: Give the responsibility of skill proficiency back to the rescuers—it belongs to them anyway. That way, if you’re an instructor, you can spend more of your valuable training resources on structured, scenario-based exercises that will allow your rescuers to solve the rescue problems themselves and gain much-needed hands-on experience. The first step in this process: Define your expectations.
Sidebar 1: Levels of Proficiency
The first level of proficiency is awareness. This person has an awareness of the tools required for tech rescue and how to use them, but hasn’t practiced extensively and hasn’t developed muscle memory for the task. A person with an awareness level of a certain skill really has to think about what to do.
The next level of proficiency is competency. A person who is competent at performing a specific task has practiced quite a bit and has developed muscle memory of their skills. They can perform the task repeatedly without mistakes.
The final level of proficiency is mastery. A person who has mastery of a skill or procedure has practiced it extensively under various conditions. They can perform the skill quickly, without making mistakes under adverse conditions. Note: Skills are like muscles: If you don’t use them, they get weak. You can develop mastery of a skill, but if you don’t maintain it, you may regress back to an awareness level.
Sidebar 2: Skill Evaluation Example
Skill evaluations are written into our policy and our MOU. We schedule individual evaluations at least twice a year, and they are well accepted by our members. Here is a typical rope rescue skill evaluation set-up:
- Schedule the skill evaluation on the training calendar with two weeks’ notice.
- Make the evaluation forms available online.
- Provide short demo videos showing preferred technique whenever possible.
- Download sample forms from the Web.
Here is a typical skill evaluation for creating a 5:1 mechanical advantage:
- The evaluator lays out the equipment and briefs the rescuer.
- The evaluator starts the stopwatch when the rescuer picks up a piece of gear.
- In less than five minutes, the rescuer must
- Construct a basic anchor; we do a wrap-three, pull-two with webbing;
- Tie an end knot in the rope and clip it to a load;
- Build the pulley system;
- Haul the load 10 feet; and
- The system has to function and when they let go, the progress capture (ratchet) must hold.
- The time stops. Note: We set the maximum time at five minutes but most rescuers do this set of skills quite easily at just about three minutes flat.
A number of basic skills are incorporated into this drill; practicing it a few times quickly builds muscle memory and makes the skills automatic.
Using this format, rescuers learn what level of proficiency is expected and in the process, our team develops mastery in all technical rescue skills.
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