Two workers on a 260-foot tower are attempting to repair a cell phone antenna. A pulley breaks and the antenna plummets, turning it into a 1,500-pound missile that strikes one of the workers in the head and body causing severe injury.
A call is dispatched to Powhatan County (Va.) Fire & Rescue. Volunteer Firefighter/Paramedic Allan Pollard arrives on the scene with Company 4. The intensity of the incident mandated a mutual aid call being issued. Before Powhatan had arrived on the scene, backup was on the way. Within minutes of Powhatan's arrival, Chesterfield Fire & EMS.
“I was assessing the situation and the possible condition of the patient,” Pollard says, “I can't put into words how I felt when I saw Chesterfield trucks pull up. These were people we had trained with and knew. It was a welcomed sight. We knew we had good hands with us.”
That confidence came from not only training with mutual aid departments, but from competing against them. Both departments' skills are put to the test on an annual basis in the Rescue Challenge, now in its 10th year.
In 1994, Bttn. Chief Steve Wood of the Henrico County (Va.) Division of Fire saw a need to advance the capabilities of rescuers throughout the region by bringing together technical-rescue teams to gain experience and share knowledge. Wood approached Mark Light, then chief of the Henrico County (Va.) Division of Fire. Light shared a similar concern that he and Bttn. Chief Charlie King had discussed years before.
After much thought, conversation and consideration, Wood developed a concept for the challenge: an annual event with realistic simulated incidents to test and stress the skills and knowledge of the most-experienced technical rescue personnel. The target audience would include teams who already had completed the rescue training programs provided by the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. The event also would provide a vehicle for rescuers to exchange thoughts and concerns.
“What we wanted to do is try to get the teams together to be involved in some advanced operations,” Wood says. “Build their team experience through practical applications and build from there. Make it an ongoing event every year so teams and individuals will have an opportunity to participate in something beyond the basics.”
Rescue Challenge launched in May of that year. The first event was in central Virginia, hosted by Henrico County with the assistance of Chesterfield and Hanover counties and the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. “The first year all the event planning and implementation took place in less than three months,” Wood says. “A great deal of energy and preplanning was essential to prepare for an event of this magnitude.”
Rescue Challenge addresses many aspects of technical rescue. “We put a lot of man hours into the planning and preparation, in addition to identifying the sites used and then coming on board with those specific industrial sites and working with them to assure them that we are a safe operation and we are not going to interrupt their operation while we are working,” Wood says. “It takes a lot of coordination from that standpoint.”
Eight teams from all parts of Virginia responded to the first call for entries. Each team consisted of 12 to 15 experienced members that had been trained in the various technical rescue disciplines. Participants faced a series of scenarios that included high-angle rope rescues, trench rescue, confined-space rescue and advanced extrication. “Our first year event met and exceeded all expectations,” Wood says.
Since the first Rescue Challenge, teams from Arlington County, the City of Alexandria, Chesterfield County, Fairfax County, Fort Belvoir, Henrico County, the Roanoke Valley and Tidewater regions in Virginia, and Montgomery and Howard Counties in Maryland regularly participate.
Some of the individuals who make up the teams are on the Federal Emergency Management's USAR Task Forces. Virginia Task Forces 1 and 2 and Maryland's team took part this year. “The federal government's technical response team has taken part in every Rescue Challenge,” Wood says.
The challenge was truly a grassroots effort that, until recently, had been run by a group of individuals who simply had an interest in maintaining the highest degree of readiness for rescuers called during a crisis. This year Virginia Technical Rescue Association provided funding and logistics to help with coordination and secure the competition's future.
The event was held in and around the Richmond metropolitan area for the first three years. In 1997, it began to move to different jurisdictions throughout the state. Initially, the torch was passed to northern Virginia, which hosted the event in 1998 and 1999. Now the event rotates every two years so different environments and area challenges could be incorporated into the event. In 2000 and 2001, the event would move to a new location in the Roanoke Valley and Virginia Beach hosted the competitions in 2002 and 2003. The event has run full circle and this year returned to Henrico County and the central Virginia area.
“It has to be dynamic. We can't allow it to become static,” says Wood. “We have got to come up with new scenarios more challenging or at least different from the challenges of the previous year.”
This year's competition included high-rise rope rescue problems, a trench collapse, a parachutist in a tree (includes land navigation skills), a building collapse, a complex extrication from a collapsed basement and an obstacle course. There were 18 different agencies with more than 150 participants.
“All the people who complete Rescue Challenge are on a high because they get a chance to do all the skills they have been trained to do under an almost as real a condition that you can possibly make for them and they are achieving their goals,” Wood says. “It's a win-win situation.”
Back to basics
Teams who complete Rescue Challenge have opportunity to identify under controlled conditions weaknesses and strong points, allowing them to reinforce their training.
“It begins at the chalkboard with classroom instruction, then onto the field for practice, then specialized training comes into focus,” says Wood.
That focus help teams prioritize operations when called into an actual emergency. Chesterfield Bttn. Chief Mark Berry was in charge of ground operations at the earlier cell phone tower emergency. “Three top issues were addressed as priorities,” he says. “First a quick assessment of the situation is done and access to patient noted. Second, equipment is gathered. Third, safety of personnel recognized.”
They also had to deal with a news helicopter overhead that was interfering with communications. A no-fly zone was declared, and the chopper complied immediately.
“It was very high risk to the rescuers,” Berry says. “That high up, with the crew having to climb the tower, we had to deal with fatigue, higher winds and chillier temperatures.”
Chesterfield's ladder truck had a 500-foot spool of L-inch rope, 3,000 feet of H-inch diameter rope and a 10,000-pound strength steel carabiner. Rescue workers on the tower also were armed with harnesses and several pieces of webbing.
The patient was located on a platform approximately 220 feet above the ground and was going in and out of consciousness. The patient had a deep laceration on his neck and an obvious concussion. He was put in a Class 3 harness, had webbing placed on for added safety and a LSP-half pack was applied for C-spine support.
The crew on the tower rigged up the rope haul system with trees serving as anchor points. The tower was like a triangle, and the rigging rack was controlled from above. Opposing carabiners were at patient level. The crew used L-inch rope on the primary system and H-inch rope on the secondary lowering system. Figure eights were used at the end of the rope on a bite. Firefighter Allan Pollard was in a Class 2 harness, and he and the patient were face to face during descent.
At about the 175-foot mark the patient began to vomit. “We had to turn him to clear his airway, stopping locked the system,” Pollard says. “We were using a four-in-one haul system, which meant that we had to lift to unlock and then we could begin lowering.”
The victim survived the incident, and on days like this Pollard understands the importance of training with mutual aid teams and seeing them in action at the Rescue Challenge. But Pollard, who in addition to volunteering with Powhatan is a career firefighter with Henrico, believes in going a step further in training. “It is a massive job to pull out the equipment and set up everything to demonstrate something,” he explains, “and it's not always practical. Suppose it is night and you are trying to explain something … so I made something to help out.”
Pollard created a state-of-the-art, miniature, model technical rescue set. “I went to the hardware store and got some 1mm rope, and made a little rigging rack. Aluminum can openers look just like figure eights.” Pollard explains. “When it's not practical to pull all the equipment out, I just pull out the model.”
Becky Robinette Wright is a freelance writer.
To find out more on Rescue Challenge contact Steve Wood through the Henrico Fire Division at 804-501-4900.
For Every Rescue, There's a Victim
How does Rescue Challenge feel for a volunteer victim? Just ask Ray George, who had a bird's eye view.
“I'm always looking for an adventure,” says George, who also is a volunteer for Bensley-Bermuda Rescue Squad, Chesterfield County, Va.
George was at a local amusement park in a drop-zone tower ride. The ride reached 300 feet into the air and George was stuck 200 feet up.
“It was perfectly safe,” he explains. “The ride was totally locked up, and they had a security collar on you. Nothing moved unless several sets of eyes saw it first.… It required a leap of faith for the victim during the rescue. You really had to trust your rescuers.”
George sat in the ride for 2 to 2½ hour stretches each session before being rescued. The rescuers had to come up the tube and then repel down.
“What Ray George won't say,” volunteers Lt. Gary Hutchison of Henrico Fire Division, “is that the weather was awful on some of the days. It was cold and raining. He never complained, not once. He just hung there for hours. He was amazing.”
As a first responder, George understands the importance of such large-scale exercises. “You just can't practice enough for emergency rescues,” he says. “Doing this type of event also builds confidence. You learn teamwork.”