Tough fire and rescue training produces more skilled fire and rescue personnel and safer communities.
By Mark D. Harris
Work has pulled me to the DC area during the week and home has pulled me to West Virginia on weekends and holidays. One of my tasks around DC is to provide medical support for a group of rescuers specially trained in structural collapse, confined space, trench, and ropes. Simultaneously, I remain on the Beaver Volunteer Fire Department and dive team. It is the best of all worlds.
My primary field is medicine, and while I have helped pull victims from fires and entrapments, my primary usefulness comes once the patient is out. I admire people who risk themselves to rescue people and keep them alive until they get to people like me. Such work requires imagination, skill, intelligence, and courage, which was demonstrated at an exercise in northern Virginia in September of 2020.
The trainees began with a simulated structural collapse. The first task was to find the mock casualties, medically stabilize and evacuate those who were in a safe and easily accessible area, and figure out how to reach the ones who were not. In an unstable environment like a collapse (building or trench, typically), rescuers can easily become victims. Therefore, the next task was to stabilize the wreckage to prevent further collapse. Once the disaster scene was structurally stable, firefighters and other rescuers began digging, drilling, or whatever it took to reach the victims. Teams of two moved in and out of the collapse together, alerting, searching, drilling and performing other tasks. They began drilling and cutting holes through large concrete blocks and pulling out the patient mannequins. It was loud, dirty, heavy, hot work. Airborne particulate levels were high, making breathing difficult. Concrete dust in the eyes, nose, and mouth tasted bad and slowed progress. Personal protective key included uniforms, boots, gloves, face masks, goggles, and ear plugs. Rescuer accountability, rotating rescue teams out of the structure, and providing good rehabilitation (water, high carbohydrate food, rest, body cooling) were key.
The second exercise was to save “pilot and crew” from a simulated UH-1 helicopter crash into a roof. A real helicopter had been placed in the roof of a building, simulating a crash. Shoring up the helicopter, roof, and building was equally important in this environment, and the team spent a long-time rough cutting heavy lumbar to prevent further collapse. The site was not as noisy and the air not as gritty as the structural collapse site, but occupational hazards remained high. While running into a partially collapsed building and pulling victims out may be faster, the risk to the responders is generally unacceptable.
Patient mannequins needed to be rescued from a partially collapsed upper floor of a building in the third exercise. After stabilizing the area, rescuers set up rope points above and below the partially collapsed concrete and rebar wall. One rappelled down, drilled through the concrete for several minutes while hanging from a rope, and then continued to the ground. Another followed in a cycle of drillers and rescuers. Finally, the team reached the patient, loaded him in a stokes basket, assembled the proper rigging, pulled him through the hole and lowered him to the ground for medical care. Drilling through concrete while standing or sitting on the ground is tough but drilling through concrete while hanging on a rope is tougher.
The last exercise required teams to stabilize a school bus which partially hung off a bridge. Chocking the tires came first, followed by building a wooden support to hold up the front part of the frame near the axle. Only after the bus could no longer careen off the bridge did rescuers enter the bus to safe the patient mannequin occupants.
The team performed professionally and learned many good lessons. Developing young leaders (and good followers) ranks high on the list of objectives for any exercise like this. Improving medical skills is another major goal, as firefighters and rescuers sometimes don’t know what to do once the patient is out. A third major goal involves improving communication skills. One of the observer-controllers asked a young rescuer how he would request assistance over the radio. The young man paused, but eventually got it right.
Fire and rescue professionals perform critical duties for our nation. The men and women in this unit were not volunteers, but 70% of the time throughout America, such people are volunteers. Beaver’s VFD is entirely volunteer. Hard, realistic training keeps rescuers motivated and keeps communities safer. The exercise provided such training. I hope that this description and the photos in the gallery below will help fire and rescue units with fewer resources to gain vital rescue skills.