LONDONDERRY — As the potential need for firefighters to perform trench rescue scenarios increases in New Hampshire, so does the need for better equipment.
As the number of major development projects increases, so does the potential for emergencies involving trapped construction workers.
Jim Roger, the Londonderry Battalion Chief in charge of special operations, said the ability to perform trench rescues has traditionally been a lower priority since it was seen as a high-risk but low-frequency type of emergency, but major development projects like Woodmont Commons in Londonderry, Tuscan Village in Salem, and the projects at Interstate 93 are increasing the frequency to moderate.
“With all the construction going on, the chances of us having to perform that technical rescue is much higher,” Roger said.
In order to ensure rescue personnel are able to respond effectively, departments across the state are training their firefighters and looking for ways to upgrade their equipment.
On Thursday, the New Hampshire Fire Academy wrapped up a four-day training session involving 18 firefighters from Londonderry, Manchester, Concord, Ossipee, Epping, Merrimack and Moultonborough.
“There’s no way to simulate this without digging a hole in the ground,” Fire Academy Capt. John Keller said.
Keller said the eight-hour training sessions Monday through Wednesday were held through rainy days, making the experience more realistic. The training took place at the Woodmont Commons construction site. They rented a backhoe from Anderson Equipment Company, dug the trenches and set to work.
Keller said instructors teach the firefighters the basic skills, set up rescue scenarios and then let them problem-solve through the process of protecting mannequins trapped beneath dirt or concrete, and securing a trench to prevent a secondary collapse, and then ultimately extracting patients.
“It’s fairly simple. There’s just a lot that can go wrong,” Keller said.
On Thursday, crews practiced with a 12-foot-deep trench, the deepest trench they train in during the 32-hour certification program. They installed eight to 10 pneumatic struts to support plywood boards meant to shore up the dirt walls. Keller said they can begin providing patient care within about 15 minutes after some lower supports are put in place, and other workers will continue to install supports at the same time.
The training is in high demand right now. Keller said they usually try to host a training every one or two years, Roger said but this week’s training filled up quickly.
“Once we requested the class, it filled up in a matter of hours,” Roger said.
Another class is planned for the spring around April or March. The Fire Academy and the Londonderry Fire Department were thankful that Woodmont is letting them use their land for the training.
To get a team trained up to the “technician” level can be costly. Salem Deputy Fire Chief Brian Murray said they estimated it would cost about $750,000 to train all 64 members to that level, which is cost-prohibitive, he said. One possibility they are considering is training 12 to 20 members to technician, and having them train other members to be support-level rescue personnel.
Well-trained crews can get a patient out and on their way to a hospital in less than an hour.
But Roger said better equipment can cut that time in half. Struts paired with pre-engineered aluminum panels would make the process faster, more efficient and create a stronger support system.
He said Manchester, Londonderry and Derry have some equipment and training for building collapse, but no one department has enough equipment to handle a full technical trench rescue. Keller agrees.
“My opinion would be that most departments are ill-equipped for this kind of emergency,” Keller said.
Murray said he doesn’t think any one department in the state has enough equipment or the best equipment to be 100 percent effective in a trench rescue scenario. For the foreseeable future, departments will have to share resources to respond effectively, but that can increase response times.
Roger said he wants to reach out to major construction and excavation companies to meet with them and discuss ways the companies can donate the resources necessary to obtain the upgraded equipment in Londonderry, which would share it with regional departments as needed. He believes the equipment would cost about $15,000.
Meanwhile, in Salem, voters approved a warrant article securing $65,000 to purchase additional trench rescue equipment and a trailer to carry all the department’s technical rescue equipment. Murray estimates the trailer will cost about $10,000 to $12,000 of that, and the remainder will be spent on equipment. They are reviewing their options now.
He said Salem isn’t looking to buy aluminum panels, but they are looking to get better wooden ones and aluminum walers that go between the struts and the panels.
Murray also said he has been communicating with Londonderry Battalion Chief of Operations Michael McQuillen to make sure their equipment is compatible between the departments.