‘It’s dark! I can’t stand it!’

Rescue training pushes limits for firefighters

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

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ROCKINGHAM — It was nearly pitch black, with remnants of a thick smoke still in the air. The firefighter, part of a four-man Rapid Intervention Team sent into the burning two-story building to rescue a fellow firefighter who had become tangled in wires, climbed to the top of the stairs.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Goldsboro Fire Department Capt. Julian Whitney works to calm a Rockingham firefighter Sunday after a combination of factors - including intensity, darkness and frustration - bot the better of him.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Goldsboro Fire Department Capt. Julian Whitney works to calm a Rockingham firefighter Sunday after a combination of factors – including intensity, darkness and frustration – bot the better of him.

He was exhausted. He was low on air. And he was frustrated, as it had taken him and his team far too long to navigate through two sections of narrow tubing and two more tight entrances, up the stairs — nearing an hour, this third RIT team still hadn’t reached the objective.

“It’s dark,” he shouted to no one in particular. “I can’t stand it!”

For at least a moment, the training exercise Sunday afternoon behind the Rockingham Fire Department became too real for one young man who’d reached his limits. It took others, including Julian Whitney and Rockingham Fire Chief Harold Isler, to calm him down. It was Isler who asked Whitney, a captain with the Goldsboro Fire Department, to stage the three-day training exercise for his department. It gave his staff another command voice from which to take life-saving advice.

Whitney was ever present inside the trailers converted to a training room and, in this moment, had a steady hand on the fireman’s shoulder.

“Mind over matter,” Whitney said softly but firmly. “Mind over matter.”

It takes training situations just like this, Whitney said, to help firefighters experience things a classroom can’t simulate. Theoretical exercises can’t stimulate the increased heart rate and all the emotion that comes with the business of risking your own life to save others’.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Capt. Julian Whitney helps firefighters check their air supply inside the pitch-black corridors of a training exercise.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Capt. Julian Whitney helps firefighters check their air supply inside the pitch-black corridors of a training exercise.

Isler had all but predicted such a situation two days before. On Friday, Whitney began the training session with some classroom work and brought out scenarios in which a Rapid Intervention Team could be deployed:

* Lost/trapped/unaccounted for firefighter;
* Flashover;
* Backdraft;
* Rapid fire increase;
* Explosion;
* Collapse; or
* Cardiac emergency.

Isler said that in any of those situations, there must be a single constant to ensure success: “The key is staying calm,” he said matter-of-factly.

There almost was a call to cut the session short, but the firefighter insisted he was alright. Just as the intensity was about to rise, however, the well-known ring of a firefighter’s air pack sounded, signaling low air.

“Looks like the decision is made,” Isler said as personnel prepared to exit the building.

The scenario

For unknown reasons, fireman Alton Lewis — also on loan from the Goldsboro Fire Department and a longtime friend of Isler’s — had entered the burning building. No hose. No rope. On the second floor, Lewis found himself entrapped by a series of wires — a situation any firefighter might face in, for example, a ceiling collapse.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Some firefighters were able to squeeze through black tubing without removing their air packs. Some were not as fortunate.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Some firefighters were able to squeeze through black tubing without removing their air packs. Some were not as fortunate.

Lewis called for help on training channel 3.

“Mayday, mayday,” Lewis called out over his portable radio. Then Lewis waited.

Isler, as incident commander,  was tasked with watching and, where necessary, correcting his firefighter’s moves. A new incident command app on his iPad helped him keep track of each firefighter — whether in the building, on deck ready to enter or in the recovery/rehab area for a brief respite after exiting the building.

On Saturday, all staff completed an air consumption test. Inside the friendly confines of the bay at Station 1, firefighters suited up and learned how quickly their 30-minute air pack would last. A variety of factors are at play here, including the depth of a firefighter’s breath and overall fitness level.

On Sunday, of course, the circumstances were different. Though only a training exercise, there’s a sense of camaraderie; no one wants to be the weak link. And there was a firefighter who needed their help. Each member of four-man RIT squads had to fight their way through pitch-black corridors, checking the floor constantly for obstructions or soft spots along the way.

The first four-man team entered the building and managed to get through both narrow tubes — not an easy task in the daylight, but an even slower process when some firefighters had to remove their air packs to squeeze through. In addition, the point man was hauling a spare air pack for Lewis.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com A firefighter works his way through a constructed, wire-crossed corridor, measuring 8 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, without the use of wire cutters.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
A firefighter works his way through a constructed, wire-crossed corridor, measuring 8 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, without the use of wire cutters.

On the far side of the second tube, Isler had the team check their air supply. It was time to turn back. The fire department had been on scene for more than 20 minutes already.

The second RIT navigated their way through the dark, narrow hallways. As they’d received a lightning-quick verbal debriefing from the first squad, they had a better idea of what to expect. They managed to advance further, beyond the two tubes and through two additional narrow holes. As Isler requested an air supply check, the second team was roughly 36 inches from the start of the stairs — but the darkness prevented them from knowing that and telling the third team.

Time on scene was at 47 minutes. Isler said that if this were a real fire, he would have forced a second entrance into the building closer to the trapped firefighter. To change it now, though, would have changed Whitney’s deliberate training scenario.

Isler also realized that, as incident commander, it’s his decision whether or not to risk the lives of four, eight or more firefighters to save a single colleague. He shuddered, and glanced away.

“I hope I’m never forced to have to make that decision,” Isler said.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com It's not as easy as it looks. And it doesn't look that easy.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
It’s not as easy as it looks. And it doesn’t look that easy.

The scenario changed slightly for the third team anyway. Isler and Whitney realized the first tube was caused mass confusion and frustration, so it was removed from the game table. The third squad, then, advanced to the bottom of the stairs and realized they had to cut their way to the top.

As they reached the top, an air supply check revealed it was time again to turn back.

A changing of the guard

Isler took over for retired Chief Charles Gardner last summer. Isler knows he can’t bring everything from Goldsboro to Rockingham. It’s a different type of department — Goldsboro has a population of about 36,000 people and five city fire stations while Rockingham has roughly 9,500 residents and two stations.

Goldsboro has a larger staff and a larger budget.

Besides, after a while, the firefighters here are going to tire of Isler saying, “What worked where I came from won’t work in Rockingham, and what works in Rockingham won’t work where I came from.”

That doesn’t mean Isler can’t use his previous experience for the better in Rockingham. For example, there are basic tools every firefighter should carry into a burning building. Upon his arrival in Rockingham, however, Isler learned that neither a screw driver, nor rope nor wire cutters were included in a firefighter’s take-everywhere equipment.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Firefighters learned the value of having the necessary tools on their person, and not on the truck, to break through common obstacles such as sheetrock.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Firefighters learned the value of having the necessary tools on their person, and not on the truck, to break through common obstacles such as sheetrock.

“You get in a jam, you’re going to need that stuff,” Isler said.

A couple of men insisted those tools were on the truck. Isler had a ready response.

“It’s on the truck, but not in your pocket,” Isler said. “Is your life worth $3 or $4 for a pair of cutters? Mine is. I knew it was a problem when I first got here … (cutters are) insurance for your life.”

There currently is no company policy requiring a certain level of physical fitness. Each branch of the military has its own version of a physical fitness test. The Army requires soldiers to complete a 2-mile run, two minutes of push-ups and two minutes of sit ups. The semiannual physical exams are age- and gender-graded. There are also weight requirements, in relation to one’s height. Paid and part-paid members of the Rockingham Fire Department, however, have no such guidelines.

That could soon change. Isler didn’t say any such policy would be as strict as any of the military branches’, he hopes to use what assets local government already owns. Some firefighters take advantage of discounted memberships to FirstHealth Center for Health and Fitness. Isler said there also might be opportunity to use equipment at the Richmond County Aging Services building located on South Lawrence Street adjacent to the fire department.

 

Filed in: Featured News, Latest Headlines, News, Public safety, Rockingham

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