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5 ways firefighters can improve vehicle extrication training

Focus on new tools and techniques, but don’t ignore the strategic big picture

Whether part of a quick company drill or a full-scale, multi-agency exercise, these five tips are invaluable to extrication training.

1. Training focus: Select either strategy and tactics or tools and techniques

New vehicle materials and design drive the development of new extrication tools and techniques. While training on new tools and techniques has its place and can be fast, easy and fun, officers and team leaders must understand how new tools and techniques fit into the bigger picture of strategy and tactics.

It can be difficult, if not impossible, to focus on the details of tools and techniques and broader strategy and tactics in the same session. Too much focus on tools and techniques may lead to rescuers who are technically competent but don’t understand how their actions affect overall operations. Conversely, focusing too much on strategy and tactics may result in officers and team leaders who can make great plans but don’t have rescuers to carry out those plans. Therefore, it is necessary to strike a balance between these two types of training sessions.

It’s OK to begin sessions with tools and techniques and, given enough time, move to scenarios focusing on strategy and tactics. However, the objective of the session must be clear to both instructors and students.

2. Equipment and environment: Be clear on training vs. real-world scenarios

Sometimes we have the resources to practice a four-car rollover pileup of late-model vehicles with a box truck wedged under a school bus and a minivan partially submerged down an embankment. Other times, all we have is someone’s rusted old junker upright in a parking lot.

Whether you have the resources to set up vehicles and an environment to match your training objectives or you have to ask participants to use a little imagination, it is crucial for instructors and students to confirm that they understand the scenario and its limitations.

This is less complicated when you are just introducing new rescuers to the feel of extrication tools and techniques. Students must be clear that what they are doing will closely match the tools and techniques they will use in the real world. Further, instructors must underscore to students that they are learning basic operations under ideal conditions, and the vehicles they will encounter on a call will likely differ from the 1971 Plymouth Valiant on which they are training.

Hand and eye PPE for vehicle extrication

3. Victim treatment: Don’t forget the victim in training

Whether you have the resources to use live “victims” in vehicles with simulated injuries, or all you have is an old CPR manikin to throw in the driver’s seat, all extrication training must include something to remind participants that the end goal isn’t bending and cutting metal; it’s rescuing victims. This will improve students’ situational awareness during the extrication process and its impact on the victims.

Likewise, strategy and tactics chosen for any training session must include consideration of the vehicle itself, including its position, and information about any victims in the vehicle. This should include enough detail to help students develop an awareness of the situation. Otherwise, students will focus solely on the vehicle, with little to no thought given to the victims inside.

4. Realism in training: Train as you intend to fight

For some training sessions, you will want to involve all the extrication resources, working together as they would in the real world. Other times, you may choose to verbalize only some actions. Either way, training as you intend to fight means acknowledging that every step in the extrication process is important, even if you won’t be performing each one during the session.

For example, stabilization is important. If you don’t have the time and resources to stabilize vehicles and break them down between each evolution, make sure students properly stabilize the vehicle on at least one evolution. If they are unable to do that, you may need to shift the focus of your training session rather than skip over a basic and essential element of extrication.

The same applies to resources and staffing. You may be setting students up for failure if you have them practice with tools they won’t have, or they are developing strategies that require resources available in training that they won’t have in a standard extrication assignment.

5. Critical thinking: Practice PACE options

One of the things that makes extrication so challenging is that each incident is a unique puzzle, often with multiple solutions. As engaging as hands-on training is, make sure students exercise their brains as well.

No real-world scenario will play out in exactly the same way as even the most realistic training. Therefore, it is important to engage students in critical thinking. Have them practice, or at least consider, their PACE options with each evolution, along with the reasons for their choices:

  • Primary tool/technique (the “go-to” tool)
  • Alternate backup (plan B)
  • Contingency plan (when all else fails)
  • Emergency tactic (for immediate life threats)

Skilled instructors develop skilled rescuers by challenging them to think on their feet and apply each lesson in new ways to overcome unexpected challenges or, even better, prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Use these tips your own way

Every instructor and company officer will have their own style of teaching. You will know your audience and your resources best, as well as how to get them from where they are now to where they need to be. These five tips will help you do that using your own preferred style.

Whether you follow a formal training plan or have to develop something on the fly, keeping these five tips in mind will keep everyone on the same page and help prepare your rescuers for real-world application of their training.

This article, originally published on January 28, 2020, has been updated.

Rom Duckworth is a dedicated emergency responder, author and educator with more than 30 years of experience working in career and volunteer fire departments, hospital healthcare systems, and private EMS. He is a career fire captain and paramedic EMS coordinator for the Ridgefield (Connecticut) Fire Department and the founder of the New England Center for Rescue and Emergency Medicine. Duckworth is recipient of the American Red Cross Hero Award, Sepsis Alliance Sepsis Hero Award, and the EMS 10 Innovators Award in addition to numerous awards and citations for excellence in education and dedication to service. Duckworth is a member of numerous national education, advisory and editorial boards, as well as a contributing author to more than a dozen EMS, fire and rescue books, including the IFSTA Pumping Apparatus Driver/Operator textbook as well as over 100 published articles in fire and EMS journals, magazines and websites. Duckworth has a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. Connect with Duckworth via or or on LinkedIn.