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Rescue work happens in all conditions

WEST DEER: Covered in mud and pitted in a ditch 14 feet below the ground, Norm Auvil didn’t let the steady rain Saturday interrupt his work.

In fact, the harder it rained, the more it boosted training conditions for volunteer firefighters learning the risky business of trench rescue. The process, methodical and time-consuming, is used to rescue or recover people trapped underground by falling dirt and debris.

“These emergencies don’t just happen when it’s sunny,” said John Medred, a member of the West Deer Volunteer Fire Department No. 1, which hosted the training program for 34 firefighters from 11 companies.

The 16-hour seminar provided hands-on training in trench rescue, which typically happens when utility workers dig for gas or sewer lines in an unsecured area.

“They go in without side shoring and the dirt comes down and crushes them,” Medred said.

Auvil, an instructor with the Fire Academy of Allegheny County, said 25 percent of the annual responses end in body recovery. County numbers for 2002 were 150 serious injuries and 50 fatalities, Auvil said.

Dressed in heavy bunker gear, participants hovered above the 5- by 30-foot trench, eager to learn the ropes. But Auvil, an instructor since 1985, explained that the rescue is an exacting and precise process. It can take an hour to move a matter of 6 inches, he said.

“An actual rescue can take six hours,” said Auvil, who volunteers with Guyasuta Fire Department in O’Hara. “We’re in there digging someone out with a garden shovel.”

Medred said the process is meticulous to protect the rescue teams and prevent further injury for victims.

“A lot of people think you get stuck in a ditch, you dig the person out,” he said. “You don’t know what position their limbs are in. You could go in with a spade and hurt them more. We’re filling 5-gallon buckets are hauling them away one by one.”

Michelle Simon, 26, was the only female to take part in the training, but proved she was as industrious as her male counterparts. The West Deer No. 1 volunteer helped lower eight-foot wooden panels to secure the sides of the ditch, about the size of a small truck. It was dug earlier in the week by the township road crew.

A firefighter for just one year, Simon said the training likely would be valuable in the face of construction at the nearby Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer, which spans 285 acres.

“With terrorists and everything else, too, you never know when you’ll need this,” she said. “The whole operation is amazing. You wouldn’t believe the technology it takes to make sure we’re safe.”

After erecting panels alongside the trench, air-activated struts keep them in place. Operating the air tank is crucial since it provides a steady air stream to hold the struts secure. If the air is cut, the struts can collapse, followed quickly by the dirt walls.

“We’re putting a guy in there,” Auvil shouted to junior firefighter Chris Wick, a West Deer No. 1 volunteer staffing the air tank. “It’s all up to you.”

Auvil, who has been called out on three trench rescues in 30 years, didn’t accept less-than-perfect work from his students. He stressed the significance of being uncompromisingly precise. One of the shoulder struts moved a half-inch and he made the students restart.

Dave Webb, a 12-year veteran of Eureka Hose Company in Tarentum, was a first-time student Saturday. His job was to provide ventilation for the victims and rescue teams under ground, in case of leaking gas or other chemicals. Using a gas meter, Webb monitored oxygen levels and pumped fresh air into the site, trying to maintain an air level containing 21 percent oxygen.

“We have to make sure that they’re getting the same good air down there as we’re breathing up here,” said Webb of Harrison. “I hope I never have to do this on a real call, but it’s a valuable tool for us learn.”

The state-certified class was free to participants, who came from as far as Baldwin to learn the life-saving technique. Local companies included Rural Ridge and Saxonburg volunteer fire departments.

West Deer No. 1 footed the bill for ancillary equipment and lunch, which cost about $1,000, Medred said.

Adam Siemianowski of Rural Ridge Volunteer Fire Department in Indiana Township didn’t expect to become an expert, but said any lessons learned would aid in a real-life call.

“It takes a lot of people from different companies to do this,” said Siemianowski, a 15-year veteran and captain of his department. “Fatigue takes place and the more people who know how to do something, it helps.”

The outdoor class was Auvil’s 34th since 1985. The training is becoming more crucial, he said, because firefighters are called on for an increasing number of emergencies.

“It’s not just putting water on fire anymore,” Auvil said. “We’re pulling people out of cars, and when they’re trapped in machines. This is just another resource to save a life.”


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