Firefighters gear up for rescue competition

Palm Harbor Fire Rescue's extrication team will face 25 competitors in the International Extrication Challenge this week.

By MEGAN SCOTT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2003

PALM HARBOR - They've messed up a lot of cars in the past few years: crushing them, placing them upside down, then removing the roofs and doors.

But this week, the six members of the Palm Harbor Fire Rescue extrication team will ruin vehicles with one thing in mind: winning the International Extrication Challenge in Dallas.

The team is one of 26 participating in the competition and the only one from Pinellas County.

"The idea of the competition is to work quickly, efficiently and safely," said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue District Chief Dan Zinge, who heads the team.

"What we're doing is stabilizing the patients the best way we can, then removing the vehicle from around them."

The Palm Harbor extrication team has practiced three times a week, a couple of hours a day in preparation for the four-day competition, which starts Wednesday. This year the competition is being held the same time as the International Association of Fire Chiefs conference, also in Dallas.

Palm Harbor Fire Rescue originally qualified as an alternate for the competition at the Southeast Regional Competition in May. When two teams dropped out, the Palm Harbor team was ready.

So far, the team has raised about $2,200 to pay for the trip, Zinge said. They need about $1,500 more to cover travel, accommodations and entry fees.

"When we started this, our goal was to get to the international competition, which is the highest level," said Palm Harbor firefighter Darryl Neil, a member of the extrication team. "We finally put a team together to achieve that. We're very excited and looking forward to it."

The team, which also includes Mike Harvey, Scott Sanford, Doug Zimmerman and Steve Gorby, will compete in three events: limited, unlimited and 10-minute rapid release. In the limited competition, the team is given 20 minutes to get a mannequin out of the car without using certain tools. The unlimited competition has more difficult scenarios. Firefighters are allowed to use any tools.

And in the 10-minute rapid release, the team has 10 minutes to free a live "patient," most often a judge of the competition.

"A lot of times you can get tunnel vision on the task of just cutting the doors off, cutting the roof off," Zinge said. "Sometimes very few of us have been in the position of actually being a patient. She's able to convey that information to you on what you're doing and how smooth it's going."

The competition is also part of a larger symposium about extrication. Vehicles are constantly changing with air bags, impact-resistant side doors and other safety devices.

That's why the extrication team uses a variety of automobiles in practice: minivans, pickup trucks, old Chryslers with hard steel, sedans and sport utility vehicles.

They use hand tools and hydraulic tools, such as the Jaws of Life, which include cutters, spreaders and rams, to pry open vehicles and remove the victim.

"What these seminars do is keep us up with the cars," Neil said.

"It keeps us updated with the new technology. Extrication is one of those things, when you're needed, you're needed now. There is a little art to it. The more you learn, the better you get, the smoother you get."

Neil and Harvey started the extrication team six years ago. They attended a class in Bradenton and then learned techniques from the Seminole Fire Department.

Most of the training, however, is hands on. The team digs through junkyards looking for old cars and then practices cutting them up. The team works all over Pinellas County, even though many of the municipalities have their own extrication teams.

"As long as we have vehicles up and down the road, there's business," Zinge said. "Unfortunately, extrication is something that will never go out of date. As long as there are accidents, there's going to be a need for people to go in and solve the problem."

- Megan Scott can be reached at 727 771-4303 or mscott@sptimes.com