By: Marcel Rodriguez
In the last installment, I discussed the roles of training and practice in building a technician. We will now explore developing experience and judgment as well as looking at ways to keep the journey moving forward.
While training and practice form a solid foundation, the technician needs to repeatedly deploy them in a real-world environment to form a solid base of experience. While practice sessions can get close to what we see in the real-world, they always include controlled elements that leave us short of the real thing. It is through these real missions that we see if the skills and scenarios we have practiced align with what we are actually called upon to do. Additionally, by their unpredictable and dynamic nature, missions have a way of quickly exposing weaknesses in the structure of our practices. As a technician builds his or her portfolio of experience, they learn to deal with emerging issues and build confidence as they increase the tools in their toolbox.
There needs to be a direct link between the missions we do and our practice. As discussed, missions tend to expose weaknesses in our practice and training. Issues that arise need to be discussed and, if appropriate, changes should be made to the way we train and practice. Oftentimes, we experience issues that result from practice that does not align with what we are seeing on missions. These emerging issues may relate to how we structure the team, how we approach a scenario, or how we deal with environmental factors. They are usually identified at some point after the mission with the phrase, “We weren’t ready for…”.
It is critical for both team and individual success that we look closely at these items and determine how we can adjust our training and practice to help overcome them in the future. Most of the times the fix is relatively straightforward.
“We weren’t ready for the (dark/rain/snow/ice/heat/etc.)” – Make sure your practice includes the types of environments you are likely to see on missions. Don’t forget to include some less likely, but still probable scenarios.
“We weren’t ready to execute the rescue with the team (or equipment) that deployed.” – Being a technician requires competence in all of the required positions. Practice should include purposeful rotation of members through all of the positions, to include leadership. Depending on the type of team, you may not get all of your resources to deploy on a mission, or you may end up on a scene with multiple missions. Ensuring that you have practiced executing a scenario with members in various roles, as well as with a minimal compliment of personnel and equipment helps build the required flexibility and confidence.
“We weren’t ready to work with another agency.” – If you find yourself having issues when others show up on scene, that is a pretty good indicator that you need to include others in you practice sessions and, just as important, in your practice planning sessions. Oftentimes, the issues that emerge in a multi-agency situation relate to a lack of understanding about a team’s capabilities or equipment, a misunderstanding of standard procedures, or a mismatch in terminology. Most of these issues can be easily worked out through planning and executing joint practice and information sessions.
“We weren’t ready for a combative patient/a child/infant/multiple patients/a bariatric patient/an animal.” – Training dummies and cooperative team members are great for some practice scenarios, but our subjects tend to come in all shapes, sizes and demeanors. Good real-world practice needs to include a wide variety subjects to allow a team to develop strategies for addressing each situation.
“I wasn’t ready to…” – We all have skills and equipment that we use less frequently, or that are more difficult for us to remember. Whether it is a knot, a piece of equipment, a technique, or a position in the system, it is up to the individual technician to proactively assess their performance and to address any weaknesses they may identify. Most of these issues can be resolved with a bit of extra focus and practice, but it starts with honest self-assessment.
While we generally cannot control the frequency and variety of the missions that come our way, we can make the most of, and learn the most from, those that do so that we can continue to build the confidence and competence required to be effective technicians.
This is, by far, the ‘fuzziest’ of the elements. It is also the one that most differentiates an individual as a true technician. An individual can be well trained and can practice often, but if they cannot apply the needed judgement at the correct time, they will have limited use on a rescue. Many will argue that judgement is inherent – you have it, or you don’t. While it is true that some people may generally show better judgement in situations than others, I believe that (in most people) judgement can be developed with good training, practice, experience, and a few other elements.
One of the most critical elements for developing judgement is a culture of open and honest review – both as a team and as an individual. This culture is based upon an environment where we seek constant improvement and learning, where we look at issues and incidents as opportunities to improve, rather than opportunities to lay blame. This culture is based upon a willingness for individuals to raise issues that may be difficult or embarrassing for themselves or the team. That willingness only develops when individuals can raise an issue in a supportive environment. This environment needs to be fostered by all members, as well as the organization’s leadership.
A key element of the “open and honest review” is the review/debrief/hot wash. This short session is generally held at the end of a training, practice, or mission to gather immediate feedback from the participants. Participants are asked if they have any feedback on the activity. The session can be built around a few prompts:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go so well?
- What could have gone wrong, but didn’t?
- What needs further discussion?
These simple questions can lead to significant discoveries and improvements in how the team performs. As you can see, getting good feedback requires individuals to put themselves out there and to potentially open themselves up to criticism. Solid support from peers and leadership is critical for this culture to exist.
An additional element to building judgement is for decision makers to explain the “whys” of an operation or practice. A technician is not just expected to know techniques but is also expected to apply the right techniques to the right situations. Encouraging leaders to explain why they made certain decisions (placement, equipment, technique, team structure) helps others understand their thought process and the factors they used to make certain decisions. These don’t have to be profound discussions, but they need to be honest to be effective. If you chose a technique because that is the one with which you are most comfortable, say so! Sharing the decisions made and the logic behind them helps newer team members form their judgement.
So, that’s it?
Not quite. Incorporating these four major “ingredients” into your overall plan will certainly help in your journey towards “technicianhood”. To paraphrase the old adage, Technicianhood is a journey, not a destination. To keep vital, you need to stay on the road, stay fresh, and stay excited. It is pretty hard to remain competent and confident if you don’t enjoy what you are doing.
Staying fresh and vital can include a lot of different things.
Rope rescue is constantly evolving. Make sure that you are keeping up with the current discussions and directions and see what makes sense for you and your team. You don’t need to buy every new piece of gear or constantly shift to incorporate every ‘technique-of-the-month’, but keep up with the rigging world.
Explore Other Disciplines
Rope rescue is a small niche of a huge community. There are interesting and exciting things going on in other disciplines. Beyond the general interest, there are standard techniques and tools being used in other areas that are applicable in rope rescue. Look to things like caving, swiftwater rescue, entertainment rigging, recreational climbing, mountaineering, slacklining, arborist rigging and tower rescue for interesting techniques and approaches. My own team’s standard toolbox includes items gleaned from the tower rescue, swiftwater, canyoneering, sport climbing and arborist areas. Learn new things, use the things that match your situation, and meet some folks that are as passionate about what they do, as you are about what you do.
Keep Challenging Yourself
We don’t tend to grow much while we are operating in our comfort zone. Part of keeping interested, excited and growing is to keep challenging ourselves with new scenarios. Set some challenging goals and work towards them. Quad-bundle highline? Improvised monopod? Minimalist scenarios? Do it!
Whether you are teaching a new knot to your team, new skills to new members, or becoming part of a formal instruction organization, teaching is a great way to keep your skills sharp and to keep excited. I have found that I often don’t really consciously understand the details of a skill until I have pulled it apart in order to teach it to others.
Reaching the point where you feel like a competent, professional rescuer takes a commitment to training, practice and constant improvement. It also takes belonging to a group that fosters your growth in a supportive environment. The feeling when you achieve that point is all the more sweet because of, not despite, the effort required. It can be an incredibly rewarding journey. To all of my fellow travelers on this road, I hope you enjoy your trip and I hope to see you along the way.
Stay safe and keep exploring.
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.