rescue team

Photography by John Altdorfer

Two feet of loose dirt can weigh several hundred pounds, so even if only the victim’s feet are covered when a trench collapses, it is impossible to pull him out without hurting him and possibly causing a secondary, more serious collapse. Thus the need for a technical rescue team to shore up the trench and ensure a safe rescue.  

Composed of 37 members recruited from 26 South Hills fire and medical rescue units, the technical rescue team performs monthly hands-on drills like the one at left, so they will be ready when an emergency arises.There are things in life that you rarely if ever need but wouldn’t think of not having around, like a smoke detector or a spare tire. For Mt. Lebanon and 16 other South Hills communities a technical rescue team is one of those things.

Technical rescue refers to those rare but high-risk events such as the 2002 Quecreek rescue of nine miners who had been trapped underground. That, of course, is one of the more dramatic and widely publicized rescues; in the South Hills, a technical rescue would more likely involve smaller-scale but still dangerous situations such as a child stuck in a tree, an accident in the LRT tunnel or a do-it-yourselfer caught in a collapsed trench.

“We have a lot of training for something that may never happen,” says Lt. Ed Davies, a Mt. Lebanon firefighter and the technical rescue team’s manager. “But when something happens, it’s not going to be the electric company worker; it’s going to be some [amateur] guy digging a French drain around a house.”

Opposite page, top: Team Manager Ed Davies, right, coordinates the drill with Rob Fry of Baldwin EMS. Bottom: Good organization is key—tools and supplies are labeled and easily accessible.

Which was exactly what happened two years ago in Baldwin, when the team responded to its first—and so far only—incident. Several friends were helping a homeowner with a French drain, and one of them became trapped in a six-foot trench that collapsed because it had not been shored up. The rescuers used specialized shoring panels and pneumatic powered shoring struts to build walls within the trench and stabilize it before pulling the man out. The rescue took about two hours.

Problem is—and it’s a good problem—these types of rescues are so rare that many fire departments don’t allocate time for training or money for equipment.

“We are good at fighting fires because we get a lot of practice,” Davies says. “But the high risk, low incident calls are another matter.”

Concerned about this lack, Davies and a few other firefighters began discussing the need for a technical rescue team about five years ago. It was a no-brainer that there was a need, but where would they find the time for training and the money for the requisite specialized equipment?

Enter the South Hills Area Council of Governments (SHACOG), an organization created in 1973 to coordinate and administer programs of regional interest and benefit for its member municipal governments—Baldwin Borough, Baldwin Township, Bethel Park, Brentwood, Castle Shannon, Dormont, Heidelberg, Jefferson Hills, Moon Township, Mt. Lebanon, Mt. Oliver, Peters Township, Pleasant Hills, Scott Township, South Park, Upper St. Clair and Whitehall.

The SHACOG Fire Chiefs Advisory Committee recruited 37 technical rescue team members from 26 fire and medical rescue units. Mt. Lebanon has eight members—four career and four volunteer firefighters—with Davies as team manager and Rodger Ricciuti, a fire department platoon chief, serving as squad leader. Mt. Lebanon Police Officer Scott Kunz, who also serves as a Pleasant Hills volunteer firefighter, acts as the logistics officer. The team has been operational since 2008.

Good organization is key—tools and supplies are labeled and easily accessible.

The team’s approximately $5,000 annual budget comes from the  advisory committee; members contribute based on their community’s population. That money covers training and testing, as well as specialized rope equipment, trench rescue panels, a bariatric stretcher that can accommodate obese patients and even a flat bottom boat for water rescues and flood evacuations.  Periodic equipment reviews help the team determine what items they still need and what items need to be replaced, as well as who has what so items—such as a pediatric harness or a specialized pulley or sling—can be quickly accessed when needed.

“I truly believe that when it comes to technical rescue no individual agency can do it alone,” says Todd Plunkett, assistant chief of Baldwin EMS. “No one department can afford all that specialized equipment and specially trained personnel.” Plunkett adds that the team was the essential element when it came to the success of the trench rescue back in 2010. “Could [Baldwin fire department and EMS] have done the rescue alone? Who knows,” he says. “Could we have done it as safely or quickly? No.”

The team is now national pro board certified to the technician level in rope, trench, vehicle and confined space rescues. Every year, the team tackles a different topic with monthly hands-on, scenario-based training sessions; certification testing is conducted the following year (this year training has focused on structural collapse rescues with certification to be obtained in 2013). Davies estimates that last year alone the team put in 1,200 training hours.  Although the rescue in Baldwin is the only time the team has been called into action, the team has participated in planning sessions for large trench and confined space operations by PA American Water and ALCOSAN.