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Are You Ready?: Structural collapse response, part 2 – trench rescue

Structural collapse response, part 2 - trench rescue

December 11, 2007
By Capt. Carlin Riley


8In Are you ready, part 1 – structural collapse, in April, we looked at how to help municipalities prepare for the devastating effects of a structural collapse. Although a trench rescue would not involve all the agencies or even tax your municipalities’ resources to the maximum, it could still be cause for great concern if you are not ready. 

Firefighters train during a technician course in Kitchener, Ont. In trench rescue, the scene must be stabilized, vibrations isolated and everyone removed from any unsupported trench. No rescue personnel should enter an unsupported trench. Ventilation, atmospheric monitoring and ensuring that all utilities are off and locked out are also crucial.

Many Canadian communities have been booming in the last few years. Housing starts are up in most urban centres. Even some of the smaller towns and villages have relaxed restrictions on development, causing an influx of population. This is great news for tax bases and economies. But with these increases in construction come the new potential for trench incidents and rescues. Contractors and municipal workers use trenches to install new services and repair or service older utilities, such as gas, water, sewer and hydro. Has your department given any thought to a trench-rescue plan? Have any of your members taken a trench rescue program, either at the  awareness or technician levels?

Trench and structural collapse training is in its infancy in Canada, whereas the United States has been providing these services for years. Since the late 1990s countless texts, courses and programs have been designed and delivered by numerous agencies and instructors. Many departments have never looked into delivering this service or even considered becoming prepared for a trench-rescue incident. Trench rescue has been considered a “nice-to-have” discipline and not regarded as a “need-to-have”, simply due to the lack of call volume. Admittedly, call volume is nowhere near that of medicals or even fires. But when it comes time to deal with a trench rescue, most departments scramble for answers, materials and manpower. I don’t suggest that every department run out and buy all the equipment and train to technician level. I would, however, recommend  that your department look into what may be required and who can help you. At the very least, I hope to inspire you to come up with a plan to deal with a trench rescue. Many communities are realizing that sharing resources is the only way to provide the service without breaking the bank. If your department has considered starting a program, here are some suggestions that will help you in your quest.


1. Attend a course that delivers the level you aspire to train to and deliver in your municipality. This money will be well spent. To read about what is needed or look at pictures is not the same as getting out there and physically installing a 100-pound waler horizontally in a “T”-type trench or constructing a Spanish windless to anchor a bipod-ladder hoisting system used to retrieve a victim. The experience you will obtain by attending a course should answer these questions: 
•    Does your department have the staffing to provide a program of this level?
•    Does your department have the funding to provide the tools and necessary training as well as the maintenance of this program? 

If the answer is yes to both, you have a good idea where you are going and how to get there. If the answers are no, you need to do more research.

2. Look at sharing resources, cross utilizing equipment and training.
No one should expect a smaller fire department to provide service in every specialty rescue. To make it more feasible in smaller departments, look into sharing resources within your municipality. Your public works department may have the need for shoring materials, including plywood. Perhaps it would even send a few people to the training, which would offset the costs. To move ahead with this venture, most municipalities would require a business plan that outlines the costs, the risks and the benefits. When you are selling this program to your managers, inform them that trench-rescue equipment can be used in other areas of the fire service. For instance, shores can be used for vehicle extrication, structural collapse or confined space. Training can and should be used for several different disciplines. Consider having your department members become trainers for neighbouring departments. When booking your training, ask for a “train the trainer” course. Empower some of your people and create a training program you can sell elsewhere. This, again, helps to offset the costs of a program

3. Plan for the future. One area that seems to get overlooked is skills maintenance. Whether your department has special teams or not, frequent training is required. Trench rescue is very technical and the call volume is low, which makes regular training sessions, including scenarios, a requirement to maintain skills. Many departments are proud after implementing a program and buying tools but soon realize that their budgets cannot support the program they have created. The costs of training in order to maintain a technical-level program are huge and, if overlooked, could lead to its demise. Plan all aspects of the training program, including initial training, maintenance training and consumable training aids in advance when you are laying out your program.  

4. Be realistic. Technical-level rescue in any discipline is cool and fun but it is extremely expensive. Using the needs analysis, choose the level of service your department will provide and know your department will save money, time and ensure a favourable outcome for your program. Your needs analysis should be honest and look at the big picture. If your results point toward not providing service to technician level then simply stay at awareness or operations level. It is always better to have some knowledge than none. The expectations on all fire departments around the country have never been higher. If you choose to stay at awareness level at least you are aware of the dangers that exist at a trench rescue.

5. Now what? After figuring out where you stand and what type of service you are going to provide, you can plan for the future. There is no wrong answer. If your needs analysis indicates that your department should not have any involvement in trench rescue, ensure that your department’s policies reflect that. The same goes for those that choose to provide the service. Make sure policy is written to encompass your operations and that you follow it. If you choose that you will not provide the service, find out who does, how long they will take to arrive at your scene and if they will come when called upon. You will be asked these questions if you respond to one of these calls.  
Just a couple of last pieces of advice: Do not exceed your abilities; never enter an unsupported trench – they all collapse and kill rescuers; and always have a back-up plan.

Trench-rescue incidents are dangerous and taxing on your department but if you plan ahead, work within your abilities and resources you can and will safely deal with any trench rescue.

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