From Vision to Reality

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This is the first in a series about the creation of a state-of-the-art technical rescue facility and the events that helped make the vision a reality.

Working together has become a template for success in one county in upstate New York. Even with the challenges of shrinking budgets, members of the Monroe County fire service keep moving into the future by embracing the concept of working as partners and sharing resources with others.

Monroe County’s Public Safety Training Facility (PSTF) houses a number of prime players in emergency services. This group includes staff from Monroe Community College (MCC) who oversee the facility’s day-to-day operations, the Monroe County Fire Bureau’s command staff, the Rochester Fire Department’s Training Division, which includes the Special Operations Unit, and the Monroe County Office of Emergency Management.

The facility is comprised of classrooms, labs, conference rooms, training props and the county’s Emergency Operations Center. Classrooms are equipped to provide students with the latest technologies to enhance their learning experiences. The training ground houses a large volume of specialized training props. These props include two specialized aircraft fire simulators, a propane-fueled structural fire training building recently updated with a flashover simulator, a five-story training tower/structural trainer, industrial/flammable gas/automobile fire simulators, roof ventilation simulator, rail car for hazardous materials training, and a new Technical Rescue Building that will be described in detail in a later segment of this article.

The First Days Of the Journey

The concept of a Technical Rescue School has been in the minds of many within the community for a number of years. September 2006 represents the unofficial beginning of this project. At that time, a group gathered in the facility administrator’s office to present this vision. Representatives from the college and the County Fire Bureau listened as the proposal was unveiled. Initiating the project was Peter Rizzo, a member of the Rochester Fire Department (RFD), now retired, and the founder of Tech Rescue Corp., an international technical rescue training company. The idea was to create a facility capable of supporting technical rescue programs through the use of specialized props designed to simulate many of the challenges faced during technical rescue incidents.

Identification of a target audience, a review of data compiled during a regional risk assessment and an overview of the courses this school could potentially offer were the main components of the presentation. By using a gradient approach; one in which the concept would grow over time in an effort to maintain the highest level of program content, appealed to the college’s leadership team. Though funding was not available to immediately move forward with the project, members of the MCC staff ended the meeting with words of encouragement and a promise that they would not set the ideas aside and let them be forgotten.

Over the next few years, the RFD’s technical rescue response capabilities began to expand. With the PSTF being the central training location for the entire county, much of the training related to this growth was done on site. This allowed the college’s staff to observe the various training sessions. These real-life examples of the types of courses and the demand for them helped to support the initial concept. Using a mask-confidence maze for confined space rescue training was the first step. After a few modifications to the existing prop, the department was able to use the facility for initial training programs as well as ongoing proficiency training and annual drills.

As the fire department continued its development, the need for a facility to house and support the training became even more evident. It must be noted that not only the RFD was expressing a need for these facilities; many of the other departments in the county were also taking on the challenge of preparing their members to respond to technical rescue incidents and expressing a need for a place to train.

When training programs took place away from the confines of the PSTF, members of its staff were invited to observe the training in an effort to reinforce the notion that there was an audience for this type of training. Even more important was the exposure of the college staff to how involved and intricate these rescue operations could be. With safety being the first priority in all training activities, the concept of “just making do with what you have” identified an even greater need for a place that all emergency responders could train without having to “just make do.”

In the next big step forward, 2009 was the year that took the process to the next level and helped to make the vision a reality. The RFD took on a nine-month project of training a group of firefighters to the technician level for structural collapse rescue. This project involved offering each of the nine courses four times each to accommodate the department’s four-group system. Beginning in January 2009, one of the nine New York State-certified structural collapse courses was given every month. Through a collective agreement between the RFD and the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFPC), resources were shared that allowed the burden of putting on a program of this magnitude possible. The RFD was fortunate to have a number of its members previously certified as instructors in the collapse program. This allowed them to supplement the instructor staffing needed from the OFPC.

Working with Deputy Chief Brian Rousseau from the OPFC’s Special Services Bureau, we were able to schedule both the instructors and the equipment needed for the training to make this happen. Each of these components consisted of sizable commitments by both agencies. Instructor scheduling over such a long period was in of itself a full-time task. In the end, we had used 29 instructors and facilitators. The instructional team included RFD members with New York State certifications in the collapse programs, state-certified collapse instructors and career staff from the OFPC who operated as both facilitators and as instructors in some courses.

Equipment was also needed to complete the hands-on courses. The OFPC assigned three of its training trailers to the program. These trailers carry most of the specialized tools required at a structural collapse incident. A 45-foot tractor-drawn trailer contains a traveling void-search simulator. Having this on site let the students train under conditions usually restricted to fixed training facilities. To complete the list of needed equipment in both type and quantity for the series, the RFD used equipment from its Heavy Rescue and Special Operations Response units. Having enough equipment and materials to keep everyone busy maximized the student contact hours during the training programs.

A Place to Train

Now that we had instructors and equipment, we needed to find a place to do the training. Working with the MCC, the RFD’s Special Operations Unit secured a section of the training grounds that became home for the collapse courses. Once the location was secured, things moved quickly.

The training facility is across the road from the Greater Rochester International Airport. Using the “let’s go talk to the neighbors” mentality, they approached the airport’s operations director with a request for metal for hot cutting and concrete for breaching and breaking training. A few days later, a small convoy of heavy equipment descended on the training grounds. The need for metal to cut was answered with the arrival of a salvaged utility tug. These small, but powerful vehicles are made of plate steel and are full of steel plates that created the ballast that allowed them to move heavy loads. This one tug ended up providing enough material to support the entire course’s cutting needs with some left to spare. Along with the tug came a few truck loads of scrap concrete: pipes, slabs and other scrap materials to get the program started. The college already had a working agreement with the airport for assistance with heavy equipment, so these components fell in place seamlessly.

Many training courses can rely on simulations to complete their objectives. Learning the skills to safely and efficiently use a torch or systematically breach a section of concrete do not fall into that category. Without the materials to practice these skills, the training would have little value to the students.

The first course conducted on the PSTF training grounds was “Medium Structural Collapse Operations: Tools.” This course provided the heaviest demand for equipment and raw materials for the students to practice on. Once the students were introduced to the tools and the proper procedures to operate them, it was time to put these newly learned skills to the test. Many of the students had never touched, and in some cases heard of, the tools they were now asked to use. (The “Medium Structural Collapse Operations: Tools” course falls in line with an article I wrote for Firehouse.com in February 2008, titled “Old School” Techniques.)

At the completion of the Tools course’s fourth offering, it became obvious that there would not be enough concrete to fulfill the demands of the upcoming Concrete Breaching and Breaking course. After some head scratching and “don’t let them see you sweat” moments, a solution was found. At the time of this program, a never-used simulator adjacent to the training tower being used for the collapse program became the center of attention. It consisted of eight concreted vaults assembled as a confined-space simulator. The concept was good, but the vaults were so large they were not functional for their intended purpose.

The staff from the MCC made a suggestion that eventually led to the location of the new Technical Rescue building. If we disassembled the vaults and placed them strategically around the training tower, we would have more concrete than anyone ever envisioned. The only catch was how to move such large items.

Once again, working together became the model for success. One of the upcoming courses was on Heavy Rigging. By adjusting the course flow and having the Heavy Rigging course prior to the Concrete Breaching and Breaking course, we could have the proper equipment in place to complete the course work and to move the vaults into place.

Lieutenant Ed Tracy from the RFD Special Operations Unit, who worked as the field contact for the entire series, started making calls. He told the Clark Rigging and Rental Co. of his need for a crane to be a part of the program. The company immediately offered to help. Clark Rigging donated the crane for the entire Heavy Rigging Series. The only request it made was for us to pay the operator for his time. This was a great example of the community stepping up to support the fire service.

One catch: How do we pay for the operator? One of the biggest supporters of the fire service and especially the advancement of the technical rescue program in Monroe County was Muffy Meisenzahl, the now-retired administrator of the Monroe County Office of Emergency Management. After reviewing our needs and checking into the various grants that the office managed for the community, it was determined that funding of this activity would be in line with one of these grants and the process to obtain the funds was underway.

Moving Forward

Now that the pieces were in place. it was time to move forward. While maintaining the vision of everyone working together, the RFD opened the program to other fire departments in the county.

By the time the series was completed, more than 160 students from the RFD and 11 other departments had been trained. Monroe County departments represented during the training were the Churchville, Egypt, Henrietta, North Greece, Ridge Road and St. Paul fire departments and the Monroe County Fire Bureau. In addition, members of the Buffalo, Gasport, Montour Falls and New York City fire departments participated in various segments of the program. A student from Germany also took part in the training, giving the project an international flair.

Next: The training vision is now a reality

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