Thirty Pa. firefighters practice knowing when, and how, to rescue fallen comrades


By Dave Pidgeon
Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)
Copyright 2006 Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. 

LANCASTER, Pa. — A firefighter knelt inside a smoke-filled hallway, reached back and slammed a wall with the head of an ax.

He struck repeatedly and frantically through drywall and wires, while behind him seven firefighters with flashlights tried to find ways through the wall.

On the other side, a comrade had fallen and become entangled in wires.

The scenario was staged, but the tension was real as the firefighters participated in a two-day training exercise in Columbia conducted by the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy.

"This program is specifically designed to train firefighters to rescue firefighters," said Matt Tobia, an instructor who watched the action through a window.

"Unfortunately, one of the primary reasons why we've lost firefighters in the past is because of a lack of training."

The training — Rapid Intervention Team Exercises — focused specifically on what to do if a firefighter becomes lost or injured inside a burning building.

About 30 volunteer firefighters from Lancaster and York counties completed 16 hours of classroom instruction on such subjects as disentangling a firefighter caught among wires and participated in three rescue scenarios involving firefighters who have fallen through a roof or floor or become trapped behind a wall.

"When you are rescuing a firefighter ... the situation can't get worse," said Scott Ryno, chief of Columbia No. 1 Fire Department. "You want to get in there at all costs, but you have to be a realist."

The site of the training was an abandoned warehouse at North Second and Bridge streets once used by DMC Products and donated by developer David Doolittle. The training was offered at no cost to the fire companies.

"We're going to be able to tear this building apart and use it for training," Tobia said.

And tear the building apart they did.

Instructors threw every kind of obstacle they could at the trainees - simulated smoke, dangling wires, poor communication systems, even pulling the ceiling down on a rescue team as it tried to reach a victim.

"We knew it was going to be hard to begin with," Columbia No. 1 volunteer David Zeigler said. "It was a lot harder (than I anticipated). I thought it would be going in, doing a quick search and pulling the victim out."

Tobia said Pennsylvania, which has an estimated 70,000 firefighters, often leads the nation in firefighters killed in the line of duty. A 1995 Pittsburgh fire that killed six firefighters inspired the academy to develop the program.

A major focus of the training is to teach firefighters how not to let their emotions interfere with decision-making.

During the first scenario, when firefighters used axes to drive through a wall, the trainees became disoriented and frustrated and their oxygen was running low.

"They aren't asking for ventilation (to move some of the smoke out) because they're too focused on rescuing" the fallen firefighter, Tobia said as he watched the training. "And this is the easiest of the three scenarios."

Ventilators would have cleared much of the smoke that was obstructing their view.

Tobia said it's essential when rescuing a fallen comrade for a firefighter to keep the desperation in check.

"Emotional decisions will not bring your firefighter back alive," he said. "Unfortunately, we aren't very good at differentiating between when we should be inside a burning building and when we shouldn't be inside a burning building.

"We don't like to lose (firefighters)."

Many of the volunteers participating in the drills said the sense of camaraderie among emergency responders drives them to take risks to rescue one of their own.

"There's a lot of adrenaline," Zeigler said. "The emotions, when you can't get them out, run high."

Ryno said rescuing a firefighter can involve a difficult choice: trying to save a life or taking too many risks with the lives of the rescuers.

"That's why we do days like this," he said. 

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