Firefighters from departments across the commonwealth participated in a four day trench rescue training class at South Fire Station in Tewksbury last week, learning the critical skills necessary to respond to a trench collapse.
The class, sponsored by the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, currently has a waiting list of 20 participants and 22 firefighters participated in last week's course in Tewksbury, according to Mark McCabe, technical rescue coordinator and instructor for the Firefighting Academy.
The four day class begins with a classroom portion, and then provides participants hands on experience in conducting rescues and victim extractions from several different types of trenches, according to McCabe.
"Each trench represents a different scenario they're going to run into," McCabe said. "Everything outside a kitchen sink has been thrown at them."
On Thursday, the final day of the class, firefighters were training in extricating a victim from an intersecting trench, one of the more difficult trenches for a technical rescue, according to McCabe.
"You're almost dealing with two trenches coming in together," McCabe said. "What makes these so dangerous is the corners, the corners will go first."
Tewksbury Fire Chief Mike Hazel recalled a trench rescue training course several years ago when the firefighters participating witnessed the collapse of a trench they were training with.
"The speed and weight at which it happened was absolutely amazing and a huge learning experience just to see how quickly it happened," Hazel said.
McCabe said a trench rescue can be called for in a variety of scenarios, but one of the more common in Massachusetts result from utility or public works projects where utility workers often work in trenches.
The course prepares firefighters for the steps that need to be taken to reinforce a trench to make it safe before rescuers descend into the trench to extricate a victim, according to McCabe.
"What first responders will often do if they don't have the training is rush right in," McCabe said. "That's what they get into the business for is to help people. It's very difficult for people that aren't trained in these specialized skills, and what will happen is they'll rush right in, they won't protect themselves, dirt will come down on top of them and they'll become victims themselves."
Thursday morning, participants in the course were using sheets of plywoods to reinforce the walls near the corner of the intersecting trench.
McCabe said each firefighter participating in last week's course will hopefully be able to take the skills acquired from the course and share them with other members of their departments.
"They'll go back and be able to share with their knowledge with their individual departments, and be somewhat of a subject matter expert," McCabe said.
Hazel said members of the Tewksbury Fire Department participating in the course would be able to help other members of the department prepare if a trench rescue is called for in Tewksbury.
"We have a member here from Tewksbury and what he'll do is go back and take certain portions of the training program to spread awareness, how to support the team when they show up and how to know when you need the team," Hazel said.
The Tewksbury Fire Department has the equipment necessary to perform a trench rescue at South Fire Station, according to Hazel.
Firefighter Ken Sandberg, of the Tewksbury Fire Department, said he had taken the trench rescue course before, but was participating again.
"This is a high hazard low frequency event so the dangers are real, it can happen, it doesn't happen all the time but it's important for us to train and be ready for this," Sandberg said.
Hazel said the skills the course supplies firefighters with are crucial, as accidents in trenches are not uncommon.
"The scary thing is this happens every day throughout the state in different communities, whether it's an emergency water main break, just laying a gas line, trenches are dug all the time," Hazel said.
McCabe said a large part of the course is working with first responders to understand that taking the time to make sure a trench is safe from collapse before entering it is crucial in any rescue.
"What happens is the bell hits and you go out the door, the emotion takes over and people want to rush right in and get the person," McCabe said. "It is a person, we will get them out, we want to get them out but it's not going to be at the cost of any rescuers."