Local firefighters train for difficult, dangerous rescues

Last modified: Thursday, June 13, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — The parking garage on the Smith College campus became a makeshift mountain Wednesday as firefighters from around the region began training to take on difficult rescues.

The Hampshire-Franklin division of the Western Massachusetts Technical Rescue Team worked on its climbing skills. The exercise served as a refresher for experienced climbers but an opportunity for all team members to receive advanced training for such rescues.

The recently formed team will be dispatched around western Massachusetts to respond to stranded hikers, mountain rescues, confined-space rescues including from caves, tunnels, shafts and other hard-to-reach areas, said Northampton firefighter and assistant team leader Daryl Springman.

Wednesday was the team’s second training session since it formed a few months ago, he said.

The Hampshire/Franklin division is made up of about 30 members, according to Springman and another 70 firefighters are split between the other two divisions; one covering Hampden County, and the other covering Berkshire County.

The funding for the teams’ training, trailers and equipment comes from grants provided by the state’s Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Information from the council about the total cost of the program was not immediately available.

Team director William Selkirk of the Hadley Fire Department said the team also received some additional funding from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Public Health, and grants from the Franklin and Hampshire County Labor Councils and the Springfield carpenters union.

Uniformity of instruction is an important component of the team and its mission, Springman said, because firefighters on the team may be dispatched to areas all over western Massachusetts and be working with different members each time. That means having a shared knowledge base will ease collaboration, use of equipment and procedures by avoiding miscommunication and confusion.

The team would be activated if local departments called to a rescue need additional expertise or special equipment.

Several fire departments in the state, including Amherst, have their own technical rescue teams and equipment, but the cost to keep and maintain the required equipment often proves to be too much of a burden for individual departments, making the regional team a more cost-effective solution, Springman said.

Spreading the costs for the equipment, which much be replaced about every five years, and training across all of the participating fire departments makes the costs for the team more manageable, said Selkirk.

That specialized equipment includes climbing gear, 600-foot ropes, oxygen supply equipment, titanium rescue gurneys, and a device called an “Arizona Vortex”, a heavy-duty metal tripod that can be used as a mount for vertical rescues in shafts, down cliffs or other steep drops, Selkirk said.

One trailer each, stocked with identical equipment, will be stored in Northampton, Holyoke, and Pittsfield and will be dispatched with an appropriate number of team members for emergencies, Springman said.

Springman said there are about 35 firefighters on the team all of whom must apply to be a member.

He said members are chosen based on past experience and training, and their location in the state and their availability are also taken into consideration, he said.

Westfield firefighter Rebecca Boutin said she’s been involved with climbing and technical rescues for about 20 years.

Boutin spent part of last Wednesday afternoon dangling about 30 feet above the ground outside of the parking garage demonstrating proper climbing, rappelling and descending techniques to other team members on the third and fourth floors of the garage.

She said combining the joy of climbing with the adrenaline rush of having to be involved in a real rescue situation that makes the team a good fit for her, she said.

Boutin said the training is always important, even if the team is only activated rarely.

“They’re not situations you see too often,” she said. “But, when you do, you want to be prepared.”

Firefighters from Northampton, Westfield, Chicopee, Amherst, Greenfield, Turners Falls, Holyoke and South Hadley participated in Wednesday’s training.

Selkirk encourages people who enjoy the outdoors to take precautions to keep themselves safe and hopefully avoid needing the team to come to their aid.

But he also recommends traveling with a cell phone to contact emergency responders if needed and to follow any instructions given.

“Know what you’re doing before you do it,” Selkirk said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.


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