The days when a firefighter’s job only required some familiarity with a water hose are long gone.
A firefighter’s job today involves much more than fighting fires. They have to know how to handle all manner of rescue equipment in response to everything from car wrecks to chemical spills – with the skills of a paramedic thrown in for good measure. Most regulations now require firefighters, even volunteers, to train for all kinds of rescue missions.
This is already the reality on the ground for York County’s fire departments. Now the York County Council is moving to make it official.
Revisions to the county’s fire ordinance that are currently before the council would expand the scope of a firefighter’s duties – or in the language of the ordinance, “accurately identify” them. The changes to be voted on Monday would allow the county’s Board of Rural Fire Control to put into writing what a firefighter must do in a nonfire situation. At the same time, the board would be tasked with creating “interagency response teams” to deal with rescue operations countywide.
“We should have done this a while back,” said William Weatherford, the county’s director of fire safety. “Everybody in the country is going to fire and rescue. Departments have already started adding rescue services, and this change just opens the door (to those services).”
The revisions mostly recognize the job firefighters from the 16 rural fire departments already perform when they get called to the scene of a disaster other than a fire. The creation of dedicated response teams – drawing firefighters from different departments with specialized skills and access to the right equipment – would make it easier to get the right people in place to respond.
“Once those teams are set up, you don’t need, if there’s a trench collapse, to call out four stations and hope one person knows about trench rescue,” said Gary Loflin, the county’s interim emergency management director.
When it comes to setting up any other rescue team, fire board chairman David Hord said the board likely would take its time deciding what skills are most needed, and when and how the response teams would be set up. York County already has a dedicated hazardous materials team to handle the release of chemical or toxic materials.
“This ordinance allows us to go where we need to go in the future,” Hord said. “We want to start with extrication, and then – looking years into the future – go to training for all kinds of rescue.”
Responding outside the district
Currently, most firefighters might be trained in at least one form of rescue operation, such as how to remove someone from a crashed vehicle. Without any ordinance or policy on rescue training, nothing actually requires it. As it stands today, whether any one fire station has the tools to do a particular job usually depends on the initiative of its firefighters and the station’s ability to pay for it.
Some stations are known to countywide dispatchers as the “go-to” firehouses for certain equipment. The Bethel Volunteer Fire Department is known for its trench rescue equipment. Riverview gets the calls to free someone from a confined space. Flint Hill handles calls countywide because of its high-angle rescue equipment.
A combined crew of full-time professionals and volunteers operate Flint Hill’s special truck – with a 100-foot platform and rappelling equipment – used to rescue people either too high or too low to be reached by standard ladders. The station bought its equipment with money raised from its own special tax district.
When needed, Flint Hill firefighters respond to calls far outside of their district north of Fort Mill. When someone jumped off a bridge on Interstate 77, Flint Hill had to lower a rescue team to the riverbank. A similar call sent firefighters to Lancaster County when a worker suffered a heart attack atop a 75-foot tall water tower.
Any future high-angle rescue team created by the fire board would include firefighters from several departments, but would likely draw heavily from Flint Hill and almost certainly use its equipment.
“We already have a lot of the guys trained,” said Flint Hill Chief David Jennings. “Once they set up a high-angle rescue team, they’ll have all the equipment and gear and everything else needed.”
New language in the ordinance would also empower the board to buy rescue equipment alongside standard fire equipment, and determine how to distribute such gear more effectively around the county. Unlike Flint Hill, some rural departments don’t have their own tax district to draw resources from, so they depend on the county government for their equipment.
‘The difference between living and dying’
The change in the ordinance is necessary because of changing times.
The current ordinance was written with the assumption that county rescue squads – volunteer-run, nonprofit groups that operated ambulance fleets for medical emergencies – would handle rescue situations. But the old division of labor between firefighters and rescue squads has disappeared, as many of the traditional rescue squads have ceased operating.
The three rescue squads that once served York, Clover and Hickory Grove have closed in recent years, and across-the-county-line volunteer squads in Lancaster and Indian Land are expected to cease operations next year.
Fort Mill Rescue Squad director Tim McMichael has a good working relationship with neighboring firefighter-rescue outfits like Flint Hill’s, and he sees the potential for cooperation with any new fire department rescue teams.
“It really depends on what extent they decide to work with us,” McMichael said. “If the county approaches it from the standpoint of getting their own trucks or equipment, then there’s really no need for us.”
Despite that, the rescue squad leader looks at the new services less as competition than as an effort to ensure all residents will be guaranteed a timely response on rescue calls.
“I’m on record saying fire services is the place for these activities,” McMichael said. “This will bring a better service to the citizens of the county. With the rescue squad, you only have so many people available on any given day for a trench rescue.”
County emergency officials likewise don’t foresee the changes affecting the operations of squads such as McMichael’s.
“This is not intended to supplant the rescue squads,” Loflin said. “The Fort Mill and Rock Hill squads still offer extrication, and we’re not going to take that over.”
On all sides, there’s an agreement that better coordinated efforts are necessary to respond to residents who need to be rescued from dangerous situations – with clearly delineated, countywide policies on what personnel from which departments will respond, using what equipment and how.
Whether it’s an emergency medical technician, a rescue squad member or a firefighter from any of the county’s departments ultimately won’t matter to the person being rescued. But the lack of a coherent policy to make rescue services available just might.
“It could make the difference between living and dying,” Jennings said.