If a Wichita-area school got smashed by a tornado, like what just happened in Moore, Okla., an elite group of firefighters called the technical rescue team would be among the first going into the rubble.
They wouldn’t look like regular firefighters. They would wear knee and elbow pads for protection and less bulky gear to maximize dexterity. They would strap on cropped helmets – similar to a miner’s helmet – designed for tight places. If you looked closely at the live TV coverage showing the search and rescue under way at the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, you might have seen white helmets bobbing among the debris.
It’s called technical rescue because it involves hours of special training encompassing physics, engineering, construction and sophisticated search-and-rescue practices. They deploy sort of a mobile Home Depot of heavy-duty tools and construction materials along with GPS gizmos, listening devices and cameras that can be snaked into voids to listen for a beating heart or look for a rising chest or fluttering eyelid.
It is a task-oriented job that requires a steely focus. But the team members are humans, too, so they would take a deep breath before moving in, knowing that children’s lives are at stake, or might have already been lost or are fading. They know that the better they stay focused on their role, the more people they can help.
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Wichita fire Capt. Brent Holman, part of the rescue team, has a saying: “Don’t be an Upham.” It’s a reference to Cpl. Upham, a character in “Saving Private Ryan.” In combat, Upham gets overwhelmed and freezes. A technical rescue is another form of combat. Holman tells his troops: “Don’t get caught with your mouth open, staring.” Stay busy, stay on task.
It can be grim. If a team member comes upon a child’s body, he covers it with a tarp or blanket, so they don’t have to keep looking at it, Holman said. Emergency responders have what they call a “Terrible 10” list of incidents. Any significant event involving a child is one of the “Terrible 10.” It bothers them when bad things happen to kids, but they can’t get caught up in it because they have to do their jobs. The firefighters would mark and communicate the body’s location and move on.
If they find a child not breathing, unless they could easily and quickly revive the child, they wouldn’t spend an extended time trying to resuscitate, based on the idea that in a mass-casualty disaster, it would delay getting to children who still can be saved. There is a hard reality about survival, about who is more or less apt to make it.
“Children aren’t going to last nearly as long,” says Sedgwick County fire Capt. Tony Tracy, another technical rescue specialist.
The description of a rescue scenario comes from interviews an Eagle reporter conducted this week, asking Tracy and Holman to walk readers through what is involved in a technical-rescue response to something like what occurred at the Oklahoma school.
The Wichita and Sedgwick County technical rescue firefighters, who total about 75, train together and respond together to building collapses and entrapments, commercial fires, cave-ins and water emergencies. They also are part of a task force that responds to emergencies around south-central Kansas, and if needed, across the state. Six years ago, they helped at Greensburg.
They must be driven but disciplined. They have to be fit, coordinated and nimble enough to climb, rappel, tunnel and maneuver through a labyrinth of destruction. They have to know how to use ropes, shoring, big power saws and jackhammers. They have to be able to pull off a high-, low- or any-angle rescue. They have to be like an emergency carpenter, measuring and cutting boards and erecting rescue structures on the spot with timbers and aluminum struts. They might work with an engineer, sizing up the structural integrity of a damaged building, or with a surgeon, who might have to perform an emergency amputation.
Where are the children?
In a real emergency like what happened at the Moore school, here’s how it would work:
As firefighters get to the scene, they are likely to encounter walking wounded – those who have been able to rescue themselves. Those survivors would be quickly directed to a staging area where ambulances and medical crews would prioritize, treat and evacuate the injured. The firefighters can’t get delayed or distracted by the walking wounded. They divide up a number of tasks that have to be done in concert. Some team members do “recon,” sizing up challenges and hazards, identifying the best entrance and exit points. Law enforcement officers help set up and secure the perimeter, to keep out people who can get in the way of the rescuers. A rescue firefighter can’t spend time trying to comfort a distraught parent; someone else has to do it. Utility companies help shut off gas and electricity at the site to prevent additional casualties.
One of the first questions the rescuers pose, to anyone who knows, is: “Where do you shelter the children?”
The team has sensitive listening devices to detect survivors buried in debris. The devices can detect someone scratching on concrete 50 to 100 feet away. The firefighters know how to pinpoint the source.
The team uses whistles or horns to get people’s attention, followed by the command, “All quiet on the pile!” Then silence. Then someone calls out: “Fire Department. If you can hear me, tap three times on anything.”
If a firefighter comes across a screaming child trapped in the rubble, it’s not so bad from the firefighters’ viewpoint.
“Screamers are fine. It’s the quiet ones who are bad,” Tracy said. “A screaming kid is a breathing kid,” Holman said. A firefighter would use a soothing voice to try to calm the child: “Hey, we know you’re here. The worst of it’s over. We’re going to do everything we can to get you out as quick as we can.”
They have trailers full of jackhammers, saws, generators, dollies and different kinds of shoring and structural pieces that can be used to stabilize debris so a survivor can be extricated. They have a high-pressure lifting bag that can raise 70 tons of concrete an inch, or 60 tons of concrete a foot. They know that a cubic foot of reinforced concrete weighs 150 pounds. They do calculations on paper or iPhones to determine what kind of shoring is needed.
In the case of a tornado, the debris can be pulverized, so there’s nothing to shore up. The firefighters might have to remove the debris by hand. At the Oklahoma school, firefighters could be seen working as a human conveyor belt, passing debris from one to another, moving it away from the rescue spot. They don’t want to pile debris where other survivors could be.
The team could use a laser to determine whether a building they are working in is shifting.
Both Holman, based at Station 4 on South Meridian, and Tracy, based at Station 37 on North Woodlawn in Bel Aire, said their team members get so focused on their work, it’s difficult to get them to take a break.
“They’re bulldogs,” Holman said.
The supervisors have to watch for signs of exhaustion.
“The most common trait is they don’t want to quit,” Tracy said. “I have to drag them out of there.”
The team uses the buddy system. “We stay together. We don’t do what we call freelancing,” Tracy said.
If a firefighter broke down from the emotional toll, Tracy said, his job would be to trade out the firefighter. A rescuer who gets distracted or overcome can’t help others.
The team has to desensitize itself to stay focused. But after the rescue, they can be required to undergo a formal debriefing to deal with any psychological fallout.
“We take very good care of our people,” Tracy said.
Often times, the debriefing occurs informally, one firefighter to another, Holman said.
“There’s a number of ways,” he said, “to drain the body, clear the mind after the call,” taking a hot shower, getting good rest, eating well, exercising. Drinking too much or self-medication only compounds a problem, he said.
Any time bad weather is approaching the region, the rescue team is watching, ready to be deployed. They can be rapidly transported, if necessary, by Blackhawk helicopters. They’ve trained on such a scenario with the Kansas National Guard.
When the tornado hit Moore, the team put themselves there mentally. They had their gear ready, including sleeping bags, but didn’t get deployed.
It’s what they train for.