By: Marcel Rodriguez
In my teaching, I am fortunate to work with many new and aspiring rope rescue enthusiasts. I really enjoy introducing new students to all of the wonders of rope work and rigging and thoroughly appreciate the courses and focused seminars I am able to teach. As exciting as structured training can be, the question I am almost always asked at the end of the session is, “What now?” Or, to paraphrase, “How do I put this into practice and become truly proficient in these skills?” I look at it as the fundamental question ‘how does one become a technician?’
For this discussion, “technician” can be whatever word is appropriate to your situation that means qualified, capable, competent rescuer in your area of practice. I will focus on Technical Rope Rescue, as that is my area, but the principles can be applied to any area of specialty rescue.
Rescue3 International describes a basic instruction philosophy in all of its courses. The philosophy holds that there are four “ingredients” needed to develop a “competent, professional rescuer”1. These ingredients are:
I have heard similar sentiments at most rescue courses I have attended over the years, but I think this represents a simple, yet powerful, roadmap to help answer our basic question. The concept that an individual needs to undergo training to understand and develop skills, which then need to be practiced and used in a variety of situations over time (experience), which eventually (hopefully) leads to the individual developing the judgement required to consistently, competently, and safely apply those skills in a wide variety of real-world situations is pretty easy to accept. Though pretty straightforward, it only begins to answer our question.
I would like to take each of the elements and dive much deeper into how we can use this structure to develop a plan to move from ‘took a class’ to ‘competent, professional rescuer’.
The basic building block of this process is training. There are many qualified, competent training providers out there offering Technician-level Rope Rescue courses. Courses generally follow the requirements in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1006 – Standard for Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications. This standard outlines the job performance requirements in which an individual rescuer must show demonstrated proficiency to be considered a technician. By design, the standards are very broad, providing a basic task (e.g., “Manage the movement of the victim as the rescuer in a high-angle environment…”2), rather mandating specific techniques or equipment.
Depending upon your particular group, agency, or aspirations, how closely a training provider follows NFPA 1006 may be more or less important to you. It is certainly worth understanding before you sign up for a class.
The courses we attend are usually driven by lots of factors. Cost, location, and schedule are certainly three of the top considerations for most people. We may also be motivated by a particular instructor’s reputation or their organizational affiliation. While these are all important factors, there are some others that bear considering.
It is fairly important that the course focus is similar to yours. If the focus of the course is urban firefighters and your focus is backcountry search and rescue, you may have a fundamental mismatch of goals. Other factors that may be important to you are the instructor to student ratio, the instruction method (amount of classroom/video versus hands-on), and the instructor personality. Instructors are generally very open about their primary experience, target audience, equipment and approach. You may need to go beyond the catalog or website and pick up the phone or send an e-mail, but it will help ensure you end up in the course that best fits your individual needs and goals.
Your ultimate goal is to come out of your initial training with a good demonstrated understanding of all of the basics of your discipline. For rope rescue, that means techniques, equipment, and knots. Ideally, you would understand both a minimalist approach and equipment-specific approaches.
One additional point. As much as many of us avoid math and physics, it is important that anyone who may be making rigging decisions have, at a minimum, a working knowledge about angles and the resulting forces on the systems they are designing and rigging.
Skills learned in training quickly become stale if not part of a consistent and comprehensive plan of practice. To consider yourself a “competent, professional rescuer”, you need to have built muscle memory for all of your core skills and to be able to quickly apply the right technique to the right task. This doesn’t happen by accident or by happenchance. It is the product of a thoughtful and dedicated program.
A friend and kayak instructor I know was fond of reminding his students, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.” You should seek to structure your practice sessions, whether alone or with a group, to practice your skills in the way you will need to execute them. If your standard practices include phrases like, “in a real situation we would…,” that is a pretty good indication that you need to change your practice to mirror your expected real-world approach. As you practice you are building the muscle memory that will guide your responses under stress. It is during practice sessions, when we do not have the stress of the real-world situation looming over us, that we build the familiarity and efficiency with all of the needed steps.
A comprehensive plan of practice has many elements; Individual-focused, task-focused, and scenario-focused are some of the key elements.
I like to think of an individual-focused plan as those things I do to make sure that I am up to speed with all of the basic tasks I bring to the table. I keep a length of rope and a couple of carabiners by my desk that I use to practice knots and personal rigging while I am on the phone. You can include rigging simple systems and anchors, as well as any personal skills you don’t feel are instinctive for you. Individual-focused practice also includes familiarity with all of your personal gear. Done correctly, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it should be a relatively constant part of your life.
Task-focused practice concentrates on elements of a rescue system (e.g., setup a monopod, establish a mainline, or complete a system changeover.) These sessions allow a small group of rescuers to focus on a single task or small number of tasks to build confidence and efficiency. I find that it is really helpful to have a “rigging lab” that you can use for these sessions.
A rigging lab, for most of us, is just a designated area that lends itself to practice the skills at hand. In my case, my lab is four well-situated trees in my backyard. A teammate of mine has installed a few strategically-placed bolted anchors in his yard that allow him to rig a variety of systems, including highlines. We even set up a mobile lab every month in a parking lot, using vehicles as anchors, so that we can have a bit of practice prior to our team meeting. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective. In addition to a lab, make sure and recruit a few other like-minded lab rats to practice with you. It has been my experience that folks get as much out of informal small-group sessions, as they do from larger training sessions. They are a great way to work through details and become comfortable with new equipment and techniques, as well as providing an opportunity for repetition.
This is where it all comes together. Scenario-focused practice is full-scale simulation of real-world scenarios. These generally take the form of regular team trainings and should be run as close to real as possible. As the team becomes comfortable with the basic scenario, the scenario should change to increase time pressures, remove access to certain equipment, or to add complexity to the overall scene. Scenario-focused training can help identify areas for increased focus and instruction, as well as identifying issues that only surface during a full scenario.
An effective program combines all of the elements in a way that the individual and the team are able to build and maintain competence in personal and team skills and to build confidence in themselves and their teammates. Establishing competence and confidence is a key step in the journey to becoming a fully-fledged technician.
In the next installment, we will look at other milestones on the technician’s journey. Until then, keep exploring and keep practicing.
1 Weber, Rick, et al, Technical Rope Rescue: Technician Level Manual Ver 4.04, Rescue 3 International, 2012, p9
2 NFPA Standard 1006 – Standard for Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2013 edition
About Marcel Rodriguez
Marcel is a volunteer Search & Rescue Team Member and Rope Team Leader with Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue in Portland, Oregon. Marcel currently holds qualifications as an EMT/WEMT, Advanced Swiftwater Rescue Technician and Technical Rope Rescue-Technician Level Instructor for Rescue3 and is a trainer for Skedco, Inc. He teaches both nationally and internationally and is a frequent traveler to Iceland to participate in Search and Rescue.