Fire department first-responders train for special rescues
By Frank Abderholden email@example.com September 27, 2013 5:56PM
Firefighters from the Greater Round Lake Fire Protection District, Countryside Fire Protection District, Waukegan, Schiller Park, Huntley and Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, were taking a course in confined-space rescues at the Lake County Advanced Response Training Academy in Russell. Ryan Mastrandrea of Countryside Fire Protection District is being lowered. | Frank Abderholden/Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 27, 2013 4:30AM
Low frequency, high risk.
Not quite good names for a couple of garage bands, but it describes perfectly the situation faced by firefighters when they respond to an emergency where a fire isn’t necessarily involved.
Like someone trapped in a confined space of a building-collapse, a worker becomes unresponsive while cleaning a tank or a vat, a technician in an underground pump station or electrical or electronic vault or someone high up on a water tower or other tall structure who is in need of medical treatment.
It doesn’t happen too often, but it puts first responders in a dangerous situation where rescuers can become victims if they aren’t careful. And careful comes from thinking and training for the situation beforehand.
This week, firefighters from the Greater Round Lake Fire Protection District, Countryside Fire Protection District, Waukegan, Schiller Park, Huntley and Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, were taking a course in confined-space rescues at the Lake County Advanced Response Training Academy in Russell, where the county also has a sheriff’s office firearm training facility.
When they finish all their courses, they will become members of the Lake and McHenry County Specialized Response Team (LMCSRT), which has about 100 members and literally has container cars full of specialized equipment for all the special rescue operations that could occur.
“We don’t see much of it, but when we do, we want to do it safely,” said Andy Wienckowski, 43, an instructor who works for the Gurnee Fire Department.
Like MAVAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System), where neighboring departments respond to nearby towns or cover their stations while they respond to a fire or accident, this group has been trained in special skills so they can respond to anything from a drowning and body recovery to high angle rescue, to a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. None of the departments could ever afford to train their staff for every situation that can come up.
“It’s a consolidation of resources to provide everyone with a specialized response if they need it,” said Grayslake Fire Chief John Christian, who chairs the governing body for the response team. “Otherwise we could never afford it, the taxpayers could never afford it,” he said.
Cynthia Tomusiak, the administrator for LMCSRT, said they have seven containers filled with special equipment for various scenarios that are strategically located throughout the two counties, some close to the Wisconsin border so they can respond there as well if needed. They have semi-tractor trailers that would haul the containers to the site of the emergency.
“For the most part, people pick something they like,” she said, which includes hazardous materials, dive team, sonar team, swift-water rescue, confined space, trench rescue, high angle, building collapse, and wildland, which is training for wildfires funded by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. There is even a mechanical team, people who can fix small engines and truck engines right at the scene.
There are a minimum number of hours of training to be certified.
“Most people exceed the minimums,” she said, “And some people are on multiple teams.” Tomusiak is a 20-year firefighter herself who has specialized training. “Every time I took one I became a better firefighter,” she said.
The first-level confined-space class goes over the importance of ventilation. Gases like carbon monoxide and methane can be disabling. Even Argon, in itself not dangerous, when in a confined space will move all the oxygen out. Instructor Wienckowski of the Gurnee Fire Department, said they like to bring up incidents that happened locally so trainees can identify with it better, like an incident in Wheeling within the last year where a worker ended up dying inside a tank he was cleaning outside a manufacturing facility and first responders had to do a recovery.
The rescue team class rigs up a lowering system and Ryan Mastrandrea of the Countryside Fire Protection District climbs over the edge and goes down headfirst trying to get through the small opening at the top of a boiler.
“If you can go through feet first, you can go through head first. You just have to adjust your body and equipment,” said Wienckowski. One of the team members on top keeps a close eye on the clock because the air tanks last only 30 minutes.
Lake Forest Deputy Fire Chief Chris Garrison joked they were putting “the Bears and Packers aside,” for training purposes.
“Illinois and Wisconsin firefighters are working together for a common cause: to train in technical rescue,” he said on a more serious note. He said the training was possible through Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin and rescue equipment donations by manufacturers AMKUS and Paratech.