Not every firefighter gets specialized technical rescue training, according to Reno Fire Department Captain Jim Bolton, but last week, 16 members of the Virgin Islands Fire Service received just that, scaling the walls of Schneider Regional Medical Center on St. Thomas as part of a week-long course in technical rope rescue.
“When people think of the fire service, they think of bringing a fire truck to a structure fire and putting out fires. The fire service industry does a lot more than that,” said Bolton, lead instructor for Fire Management Consulting, which handles many V.I. Fire Service trainings.
“We get called when people have no other answers to try to solve their problems. In this case, where people get injured in an area where you just can’t get to them very easily, rope rescue is the skills that we need,” he said.
Bolton has been coming to the territory for the last 12 years, providing various types of training for the V.I. Fire Service, including hydraulic calculations for pumpers, hazmat training and technical rescue. The April trainings are focused solely on rope rescue for select local firefighters with varying levels of experience, from 10-year veterans to rookies with less than two years of service under their belt.
According to Bolton, rope rescue is the basic foundation of technical rescue that could be employed for confined-space rescues where the use of a ladder would not work, auto accidents in which vehicles have gone over embankments, when people have fallen into cisterns, or even scenarios involving multi-story buildings or cruise ships.
“It allows rescuers to go into these spaces, put people on a device to get them lifted out and then the ropes will be used to lift victims or patients and the rescuers out to safety,” he explained.
Last week’s classes at Schneider Hospital taught firefighters how to execute a rescue while hanging from a rope. Under the supervision of Bolton’s team, they rigged up thick, color-coded ropes anchored onto various points of the hospital roof, all connected to tripod-like contraption on the edge of the building. Anchoring the ropes takes the most time, Bolton said, roughly 30 minutes in a simple rescue situation to an hour and a half for more complicated rescues.
On Thursday, firefighters simulated a scenario in which a patient on a stretcher, played by a volunteer firefighter, needed to be lowered to the ground level.
“Sometimes to gain access down to the patient, there’s nothing to stand on, so I have to teach these guys to treat a patient’s injuries, package them, all while hanging from a rope,” Bolton said. “It’s pretty challenging.”
The setup required the participating firefighters to assume various roles, each coordinating their actions with other members of the team. A team was stationed at the tripod, in charge of strapping the patient into the metal stretcher in a way that would not exacerbate any existing injuries. This team lifted the patient over the wall and out — or in, depending on the scenario — while a lone rescuer on a harness scaled the wall, pulling the basket away from the wall to eliminate friction and allow pullers to lift it up or lower it down smoothly.
It was an exercise that required synchronized action, an ear for directions, and calm nerves. Adding to the pressure was the race against time, depending on the patient’s condition, and this is where rope rescue training becomes an advantage.
“As first responders, we have all day to get the job done, but the clock is ticking against how badly injured the patient is,” Bolton said. “So if somebody’s taken a fall, and they could have an enclosed head injury or some kind of multi-systems trauma, they go into shock. If we don’t get the rescue effected within a reasonable amount time, which could be 45 minutes to an hour to include our response time, the patient’s condition is going to continue to destabilize.”
The rope rescue training required paying attention to small details that could mean the difference between life and death, according to Bolton. The classes deal with such factors as gravity and force multipliers, and how making the wrong move or an accidental slight drop could create a shock load that can overstress the equipment.
“There’s some physics involved. It’s not the funnest thing to talk about but at the same time, it’s necessary. And these guys,” he said, gesturing to the line of firefighters, “these guys are sharp. They grasp the concepts.”
In addition to just learning how to use the ropes and various equipment, Bolton also stressed the importance of redundant systems that would kick in if one aspect of the rescue failed. And while a few members of Thursday’s team have gone through rope rescue classes in the past, Bolton said these are perishable skills that rescuers need to revisit to stay at their peak.
Stefan Todman, a firefighter for two years, said he was glad to get involved in the specialized training that he believed would help him and his colleagues to better serve their community.
“It was a great experience for all of the firefighters that were able to participate in the low- and high-angle rope training,” Todman said. “As a first responder, you never know what you may come up against.”
Bolton and his team will head to St. Croix to train another 16 firefighters in the next week.