The Off-Duty Rescue

Steve Hudson, one of the “grandfathers” of technical rescue (specifically vertical rescue), passed away recently. If you’re involved in technical rescue today, you’ve been touched by Steve in one way or another. He was deeply involved in many aspects of the national rescue community: from the rope rescue manual your department may use, to NFPA standards for technical rescue and protective clothing, to the ASTM search and rescue committee, to ANSI fall protection standards, to memberships in the National Association for Search and Rescue and the National Cave Rescue Commission, to the PMI rope that you may be using to rappel. In addition to all of that, Steve worked as a first responder. He was the deputy director of Walker County’s (Ga.) Department of Emergency Management and a member of their cave and cliff rescue team.

Last year, Steve and I were talking at the International Technical Rescue Symposium in Seattle about the changes in technical rescue techniques and equipment. We laughed about some of the techniques that were commonly used 25 years ago and how they, if deployed today, would be considered unsafe. Steve recalled responding many years ago to an incident at night with only one other responder and the items in the back of his vehicle. They improvised, adapted and overcame, and as a result, the victim was rescued and all ended well. Hearing his story reminded me to think outside the box when the toolbox is small, and to carefully select what I may want to carry in that small box. With his limited resources that night many years ago, Steve did the right thing, and as the years went by, he was known to use the common phrase, “do the right thing.” In this article, I will discuss how to do the right thing when responding at a time when most of us have few, if any, resources–when we’re off-duty.

The Off-Duty Incident

Consider this scenario: On your day off, you’re driving in a remote part of the county where there’s no cell service, and there’s no traffic on the road. You come around a corner and see a car pulled off the road with its four-way flashers on. One person is standing beside the car frantically waving his arms. There are tire tracks going off the road over an embankment. The person tells you that he saw a car skid off the road and go over the embankment.

Has this ever happened to you? Do you carry anything in your personal vehicle that can be used to assist in this situation? If you were on duty pulling up in a fire or rescue apparatus, this would be an everyday incident; you’d perform your size-up, establish scene control and call for additional resources as needed. But in the example above, you’re not on duty and therefore don’t have immediate access to certain key resources. What do you do?

Real-Life Off-Duty Responses

Below are several stories of off-duty responses; you may encounter (or have encountered) similar situations.

Family Vacation

During a family vacation at a lakeside campground in Oregon, an off-duty fire officer is informed about a water skiing accident involving one of his family members in the middle of the large lake. A 9-1-1 call has already been placed with a satellite phone and units will be responding to the rural location.

The officer grabs another family member from the campground, and they both take off in a powerboat for the scene. Once there, they find a number of boats clustered around the injured victim in the water. A sheriff’s department deputy is now on scene as well, but no one knows what to do and no one is in charge. The victim has been dragged onto rear step of a ski boat and is complaining of loss of movement and sensation in his extremities. The fire officer quickly does a scene size-up, evaluates the victim’s condition and assesses resources available. Recognizing the severity of the victim’s C-spine injury, he pushes past his own personal feelings and enlists the help of others on scene to assist with packing the patient. He attempts to add some humor to the situation when possible.

Using the deputy’s backboard and other EMS equipment, and improvising where needed, the fire officer packages the victim and moves him to the deputy’s boat. The deputy is able to communicate via radio with responding units. The victim is eventually transferred to a fire department boat, taken to shore and flown by helicopter to the nearest trauma center.

A year later, the victim is walking with the use of crutches and is on the road to recovery. Note: The true hero in this story is the fire officer’s teenage daughter, who swam to shore and ran a distance while barefoot (for which she later required medical treatment) to locate a group with a sat phone and then alerted her father to the incident. He’s a very proud dad for sure.

Overseas Travel

While traveling down a mountain road in France on a bicycle, an off-duty fire officer comes across an elderly woman lying beside the road, bleeding from a head wound. He stops and attempts to render aid, but the patient is agitated and does not speak English. The off-duty officer’s wife attempts to communicate with the woman to calm her as the officer attempts to do an exam and dress the wound; they also flag down passing cars to telephone for assistance (pre-cell phone days). The small, local volunteer fire brigade responds to the scene, and the officer’s wife explains in their native language that her husband is a fire captain and what’s happening. The brigade assists the fire officer with C-spine immobilization and packaging.

When the career firefighter/medics from the larger, municipal fire brigade arrive, they’re quite impressed with the packaging; the initial responders point to the off-duty fire officer. The career firefighter/medics insist that the fire officer and his wife stop at their firehouse later in the day, which they do. They meet with the fire chief in his office, share a meal with the crew and stay so late that they are driven to their destination in a department rescue truck that evening. The firefighters then negotiate the rate for lodgings at a hotel for them.

Late-Night MVA

While driving on an interstate highway in Washington state late at night, en route to an EMS conference in a fire department staff vehicle, an off-duty assistant chief and two company officers come upon a motor vehicle accident (MVA) in a rural area. The highway has three lanes moving in each direction, and there are multiple vehicles pointing in various directions. Fuel is leaking from one vehicle onto the roadway, and several people are injured. The assistant chief and the company officers call in the incident on their radio, with a request to relay the incident to the appropriate dispatch center.

The assistant chief then functions as the incident commander while the two fire officers perform triage. The first on-duty responder who arrives on scene is wearing a white helmet. He’s informed of what’s happening and C spine immobilization equipment is requested. Not much happens, so the assistant chief and company officers continue assisting patients and trying to mitigate the situation. Moments later, a second white helmet arrives on scene along with the fire apparatus. The same information is conveyed to them as well. Still nothing happens. Upon the arrival of a third white helmet, it’s apparent that chief officers in this rural area do not wear white helmets; they wear yellow helmets. Once this discovery is made, a yellow helmet-clad fire officer is located and things begin to happen. The critical patient is packaged and transported by medics to the trauma center.

Shopping Trip

An off-duty New York City firefighter is shopping at a large supermarket in his suburban community when he smells smoke. He sees smoke coming from the rear of the store and realizes that this is the real deal, so he orders the store staff to call 9-1-1 and evacuate the store. Once the evacuation is under way, he goes in search of the fire. He locates flames in the rear of the store and attempts to extinguish them with a portable fire extinguisher. He quickly realizes that the fire has exceeded the portable extinguisher’s capabilities, so he exits the building and attempts to ensure that all the employees and shoppers have left as well. He meets the arriving companies and explains what he found and where the fire is located, and they initiate fire attack.

School Bus Accident/Inclement Weather

While driving on a Washington state interstate highway in a heavy rainstorm, an off-duty firefighter comes upon an MVA involving a school bus that has skidded off the roadway and crashed. School children are standing around the bus. The front of the bus is heavily damaged and smoke is coming from the engine compartment, The driver is out of the vehicle. He states that one student is on the bus and that they are injured and won’t leave. The firefighter directs several bystanders to grab fire extinguishers and several others to call 9-1-1. The firefighter and a state trooper board the bus through the emergency exit. They find a female teenager in respiratory distress due to broken ribs. With assistance from the firefighter and the trooper, she is removed from the bus and placed in a police car until EMS and fire units arrive on scene.

Key Considerations

The above tales are just a few examples of incidents that we may encounter while out of uniform. I’m confident that every reader has at one time or another come upon an incident requiring the use of their fire, EMS, rescue or public safety officer skills and training. Often, we’re needed in a minor capacity. Once in a while, however, we come upon a major incident that requires the use of all of our skills. Here are some things to consider when you’re faced with these incidents:

  • Immediately pause for a moment to survey the scene and do a hazard assessment. Your safety is paramount. You can’t help someone if you’re part of the problem. It’s absolutely critical that you identify the hazards and never commit beyond your level of protection.
  • Identify yourself and your level of training (medical incident) to bystanders and first responders as they arrive on scene. People are more likely to listen to your instructions (such as “please step out of the way” or “don’t move that person” or “run away right now”) if they know that you’re a trained public safety officer. It will also be easier to enlist the help of bystanders when moving people out of harm’s way.
  • Make sure someone calls 9-1-1. As responders, we don’t call 9-1-1 since we are 9-1-1. If you’re too busy to call, delegate someone else to call, but give them specific instructions so that the appropriate apparatus responds. If possible, take a moment to speak directly to the dispatcher. Give them your name and position, and a brief explanation of the incident and the resources needed (e.g., extrication equipment, ALS care, etc.).
  • Protect yourself (gloves for medical). You’re not wearing a uniform or turnout gear. You have no reflective tape on your clothing. If working along a roadway, don a reflective vest when possible (you carry one in your vehicle, right?). If you carry nothing else with you when you travel, a pair of gloves and a pocket mask will give you some basic protection. I’d be lying if I said that I never searched a burning building in street clothes (they were actually bike clothes). A fire officer I worked for once ran across the street in middle of the night in his underwear and rescued an elderly woman from an apartment fire in Brooklyn. Do the right thing, but pause for a moment. Do a risk/benefit analysis.
  • Ask the responders if they would like you to stay and assist. Often when we arrive on scene, bystanders are holding C-spine, performing CPR or directing traffic, but when they see us, they stop what they’re doing. Don’t do what they do. Give the responding on-duty units a short report and continue doing what you’re doing until relieved. Once relieved, find out if they need any other assistance. It’s their show at this point.

A Note about Risk/Benefit Analysis

Many years ago, a distraught motorist stopped her car on a bridge, climbed over the guardrail and jumped into the river below, which was a 135′ drop. An off-duty firefighter happened to see her jump, so he stopped his truck, ran up to the guardrail–and jumped in after her. Fortunately, he was able to locate her, and a fishing boat picked them both up.

The firefighter’s actions raised a bit of controversy in the local rescue community. I think I would’ve stopped and done a risk/benefit analysis. In doing so, I would have remained on the bridge deck and could have directed the response crews from above.

So What Happened?

Returning to the incident that began this article, using equipment in his personal vehicle, the off-duty member rappels down a class 3 slope and assesses the driver. He has minor injuries (seatbelts save lives). With the help of the passing motorist who flagged him down, the member assists the driver up the steep bank to the roadway. missing image file


I want to thank the following people for sharing their off-duty stories with me:

  • Captain Mike Calhoun: Jackson County (Ore.) Fire District 3
  • Chief Jordan Pollack: Brietenbush (Ore.) Fire Department
  • Firefighter Ted Wold: Tacoma (Wash.) Fire Department
  • Firefighter Mike McGloughlin: Engine 54, FDNY (ret.)

sidebar-What to Carry

At minimum I like to travel with a pocket mask and a pair of gloves in my bag. In my POV, I carry what most fire/rescue personnel carry in their POVs, and maybe I carry a few additional items as well. Better to have it than not. For the most part, I’ve used everything that I carry in my vehicle at one time or another. Here is a basic list of items you should carry:

Car Box

  • Jumper cables
  • First aid kit/C collar
  • Flashlight
  • Reflective safety vest
  • Bottled water
  • Snack bars
  • Tool kit
  • Work gloves
  • Thermal blanket
  • Rain jacket
  • Slim Jim
  • Tow strap
  • Window punch
  • Seatbelt cutter
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Safety glasses

Rescue Gear

  • Webbing (improvised harness)
  • Extra webbing
  • 100 feet of rope, plus rescue rope
  • Locking carabiners
  • Prusik loops
  • Descent control/belay device
  • Pulleys
  • Edge protection

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