First responders brave the heat to hone skills

NUNDA FIRE CHIEF Dan Hansen uses an extrication tool to gain access to victims trapped inside a van during a full-scale training exercise on Wednesday night.

Sweat soaked the T-shirts firefighters wore under their bunker gear as they peeled off jackets after working more than 30 minutes to extricate victims from a van which had rolled over, trapping both driver and passengers inside.

With temperatures in the 80s, they were engaged in the first full-scale training exercise to be held in Lake County in three years. Organized by the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) in partnership with the South Dakota Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, the exercise offered first responders the opportunity to address situations which might arise should a tornado sweep across Madison.

"There's opportunity for improvement, but there always is," said LEPC Chair Kory Reck, observing the volunteers at work.

Located at the intersection of Farmer Avenue and S.W. 3rd Street behind the Madison Farmers Elevator, the training site offered local fire departments a chance to learn how to address an anhydrous ammonia leak and to hone their extrication skills in situations which did not actually involve human life.

"When you have that person screaming in that vehicle, you want to go in," Reck said.

However, first responders must learn how to do so safely. If they are injured in attempting to rescue someone trapped in a vehicle, they are unable to provide aid and may need assistance themselves.

To safely extricate victims, the firefighters must first size up the scene and stabilize the vehicle. Then they can begin extrication using the appropriate tools.

Lake Preston Fire Chief Josh Buer, who also provides training through M&T Fire and Safety of Volga, was on hand both as an evaluator and a trainer.

"This is something I have a huge passion for," he said. Buer's goal was to help local firefighters learn more efficient ways to tackle an extrication, "whatever is the quickest and easiest way to make it happen."

Because he does training, he conducts extrications two or three times a week and picks up new techniques, such as using duct tape on windows instead of removing them. This reduces the amount of glass on the ground while also preventing glass from falling into the vehicle onto the victim.

"We're getting a lot of useful information," said Nunda Fire Chief Dan Hansen. Each year, his department responds to several accidents. Sometimes, these are mutual aid responses.

"When we train together like this, it makes a huge difference," he said.

In what Emergency Management Director Kody Keefer called a "hot wash" following the exercise, several firefighters noted that time changes when they are focused on an extrication. What seemed like a mere 10 minutes to them was actually 30. They felt this was good information to have.

In addressing the anhydrous ammonia leak, firefighters learned to use a cross-over fog pattern, which can also be used to deal with a propane leak. Two firefighters using a spray pattern are guided by a third standing between them whose job is to ensure the two sprays overlap or cross.

"They can walk right into it with that," said Wentworth Fire Chief Terry Reck. "It pushes whatever they are fighting away from them."

Anhydrous ammonia is used in fertilizer and common in the area. Because it seeks moisture, it causes a burning sensation if inhaled and can cause lung damage.

Should a leak actually occur, responders would use breathing apparatus and take other precautions to prevent the chemical from getting on their skin, according to Reck. Because the tank was empty and a theater smoke machine was used to simulate the fumes, neither were used on Wednesday night.

Still, during the hot wash, several firefighters expressed appreciation for the opportunity to obtain hands-on experience in dealing with a leak.

Also during the hot wash, another evaluator praised all of the volunteers for their work.

"It was great to see the teamwork, to see people pulling together," Brad Georgeson said.