Safe rescues from tough spots

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Here’s the scenario.

The air conditioning in one of Warwick’s taller office buildings fails. The service company is called and sends over a crew to work on the rooftop unit. This seems like an ordinary call. This is an older unit and has been showing the signs of its age for years. The crew knows just where to start. One of the two lifts a small ladder against the unit while the other starts troubleshooting electrical connections. They have done it this way countless times. They know the routine.

Then the unexpected happens. The roofing under the ladder buckles. It’s a weak spot and it’s finally given away. The man on the ladder tumbles. He hasn’t fallen far, a mere four or five feet, but his back hits a roof vent pipe. The pain is excruciating. His fellow crewmember races to his side. He can’t move. He’s afraid he’s broken his back.

The crewmember pulls out his cell phone and frantically calls 911. Firefighter EMTs arrive, climbing the same ladder the crew used to access the roof. They squeeze through the roof opening with their gear. They start treating the injured man and quickly realize there’s no way to get him on a stretcher and back down the way he came up.

It’s just such an incident that the Warwick Fire Department technical rescue team was training for recently on the roof of the Sports Authority at Warwick Mall. Getting to the roof didn’t pose a challenge, or getting down for that matter. A freight elevator brought the firefighters to the top floor and from there it was a climb up a steep steel staircase to a platform and opening to the roof.

But then this team trains to deal with situations that don’t offer simple solutions. Just as plausible as an injured worker on an inaccessible rooftop is one caught in the confines of a wind turbine tower or a storm water drain beneath city streets.

In fact, it was the wind turbine argument that Lt. Jason Erban says played a significant role in winning the department a $1.1 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant for 400 hours of training for 36 men and $250,000 in equipment. Erban was instrumental in writing the grant, arguing that the government is giving millions in tax incentives for the development of sustainable energy projects and likewise should invest in how to address emergency situations involving these technologies.

Getting injured people off or out of highly inaccessible places is a skill that could come into play.

Erban was the first over the side of Sports Authority. That was an outcome of the session but hardly the objective, explains Captain Michael Mernick. Rather, he said, the exercise is designed so that the team assesses the situation and takes the steps to safely rescue the victim. In the case of the rooftop scenario, the victim had to be in a stretcher and lowered from the roof. Assuming evacuation from inside the building was impossible, the options left without a helicopter were from a ladder truck or lowering by ropes. Both of those were used during the exercise.

Of the two methods, Mernick said the ladder truck can be more difficult, as lowering a stretcher down a ladder is tough work. Preparation is key to the alternative of lowering. For the exercise the crew used a steel guider that is part of the HVAC housing as the “anchor” for the system. The anchor was not directly in line with the point of descent, which required pullies to change directions. Then there was a tripod device that needed to be erected at the roof’s edge so that the stretcher could be eased over the edge and evenly lowered from there.

Preparation took time. Few knots were used in the web of lines that would be used to lower the stretcher more than four stories. Knots offer a weak point, so they are kept to a minimum. Mernick put the setup at 15 to 20 minutes. It’s not something to be rushed when it comes to safety.

Ropes weaved from the “anchor” across the flat roof that was radiating the heat of a cloudless morning and through the directional pullies to the tripod. It was hot and surely it was much hotter for the firefighters in their gear.

Keeping a watchful eye was Pvt. Scott Jensen of the Warwick team and a training coordinator with the technical rescue division at the Fire Training Academy in Exeter. Jensen pulled a check on the equipment and crisscross of lines.

The Warwick team holds monthly training exercises often incorporating other members of the department, as well as working with members from other departments, to expand the skill sets and provide for cross-training.

As for Erban, he wasn’t left dangling at the Sports Authority. Within inches of the pavement, Erban communicated his position and told the crew above to hoist him back up to the roof. He wasn’t going to be using the freight elevator. Hoisting requires installing a block and tackle system with safety catches. With a five-to-one purchase, the tackle enables a couple on the roof to easily lift the weight of a man. However, with limited space, the crew had to stop half way up and reposition the blocks to bring Erban the rest of the way.

Erban was good with that. He just hung out.

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