Anaheim Fire & Rescue’s Urban Search and Rescue team members know they must train for every eventuality. But they also know there may be days when the inconceivable happens — and then they must adapt.
“It is highly technical rescue disciplines,” says Capt. Rick Cheatham, a member of the USAR team for about 15 years. “USAR just adds more tools in our toolbox, so to speak, which allows us to be more effective in a major incident.”
Made up of firefighters and firefighter paramedics specially trained in a broad range of rescue disciplines, including confined space (tunnels and underground), swift water and building collapse, to name a few, the team operates out of AF&R’s Station 2. Though all firefighters at the station are part of the USAR team, they are also working regular shifts. But if a USAR call comes in, they must be ready. Seven USAR members are generally assigned to duty daily (four is the minimum).
“It’s kind of a unique discipline in the fire service,” says Firefighter Brent Hirst, who has been on the team since its inception in 2001 (minus a two-year hiatus while he was with the training company).
For team members, it’s a rewarding, highly technical job with little room for error because lives are at stake — which is why there are so many hours of training.
“Most of the skill sets we’ve worked in, you don’t get a second try at,” says Hirst.
Training Never Ends
At a recent USAR regional certification training at AFR’s North Net Training Center, senior instructor Capt. David Baker emphasized the importance of training in the work they do.
“You’ve got to be at the top of your game,” he says. “It’s physically demanding. It’s mentally demanding.”
Because AF&R’s USAR team is also a part of FEMA’s California Task Force 5, the team participates in additional hours of training to meet FEMA’s requirements.
As part of the FEMA team, USAR members can be dispatched anywhere in the country for disaster-type events — in fact, Baker and other members were in New Orleans as part of Hurricane Katrina’s rescue efforts in 2005.
AF&R’s USAR team, for example, must undergo 24 hours of low-angle rope rescue, 40 hours of rescue systems 1, 40 hours of rescue systems 2, 24 hours of rescue systems 3, 40 hours of confined space and 24 hours of trench. And that’s just the basics. Plus, as procedures are updated, so is the training.
“It’s constant training, it’s constant updating,” Baker says.
At the North Net certification training, 31 firefighters from a wide range of departments (from Huntington Beach, Beverly Hills and Riverside County to Escondido and Sacramento) participated in a 40-hour rescue systems 2 class, including breaching through concrete slabs with drills, lifting and moving concrete, and using shores to prop up buildings.
“It’s very challenging,” says Baker. “They’re breaching through 8 inches thick of concrete… You’re dealing with thousands of pounds.”
Rescues In Action
The training is absolutely necessary for the work of the USAR team, but team members also have learned to expect the unexpected — meaning they also must be masters of improvisation.
“You simply can’t train for every potential,” says Hirst.
So with the training as their base and specialized tools at their disposal, they troubleshoot each situation as it happens, implementing a plan and strategically carrying it out.
“We basically have a truck that is a rolling tool yard,” says Cheatham of their fully equipped rescue truck.
Their most recent rescue was of a maintenance worker who fell and slid down the Anaheim Convention Center dome to a side wall, where he was knocked out, bleeding and unconscious.
Then there was the rescue, about 1 1/2 years ago, involving the driver of a tractor trailer who went off the freeway and ended up driving into a carport area set beneath apartments, which were in danger of collapse from the accident. After the driver had been rescued by Garden Grove Fire, the USAR team worked to safely remove the tractor trailer by shoring the carport structure up because the tractor had hit supportive posts.
There also was the rescue of a man at the county landfill years ago who got pinned up against his truck and a concrete block retaining system. Normally, the team would have used airbags on the ground to help prop the victim free, but because the ground was landfill, it was too soft for the airbags. The only way to save the dying man was to perform a field amputation of his leg, so medical staff was called to the scene to perform the amputation— and he lived.
“Nothing’s ever the same, it’s always different,” says Cheatham.
Though the team can’t predict when they’ll be called out, they must be ready at a moment’s notice.
“We are a low-frequency, high-risk group,” says Firefighter Engineer Aaron Hamblin.
Firefighter Jason Hibbard, who has been on the team two years, says, “At any given moment, we can get called to a disaster like Katrina.”