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Emergency workers learn ins and outs of trench rescues

September 30, 2002|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Two feet of dirt separate a rescue worker and two victims of a trench collapse. Two hundred to 2,000 pounds of dirt push against the bodies of the victims, who watch as the rescue team works to uncover them.

"It would be like a car pushing you up against a wall," Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Justin Mayhue said. The victims can't expand their lungs.

Within the trench, two workers, masked, capped and gloved with protective gear, have only 3 feet of cramped working space - to place heavy support boards, clear dirt and perform first aid - while they race against the shock clock.

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Over the weekend, area fire and rescue workers underwent a training session at the Hagerstown Fire Department Training Center for trench collapse rescue, where they were instructed on how to react to different scenarios, stabilize those scenes and rescue the victims through a series of simulated accidents.

About 30 members from The Washington County Fire and Rescue Department, Hagerstown Fire Department and Washington County Special Operations Team, which draws from area fire and rescue organizations, met at the training center to practice with new equipment designed for trench rescue.

The county's special operations team got a new truck last December equipped with supplies needed for trench rescue: Plywood, used to stabilize trench openings; grounding pads, used to press against trench walls to keep additional dirt from falling in; struts, beams that force the pads against the walls; ventilation tubes; and related rescue materials.

The truck was ordered prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and before a related higher demand for the "toolbox" truck the county now owns, said John Bentley, special operations chief.

About 2,300 trenches, any hole deeper than it is wide, are open at any given time in Maryland for work during excavations, road repair and construction, Mayhue said.

Projections that Hagerstown will continue to grow focused rescue teams on the number of construction workers that will be building the city up from trenches in the ground, Mayhue said.

Bob Murray, rescue instructor at the University of Maryland and Trench Rescue Weekend instructor, said he's been involved in 13 incidents in which someone was trapped or buried in a trench. Murray, also captain of Baltimore County Urban Search and Rescue, said in bigger cities, rescue workers respond to about 700 trench calls a year. Murray went with a collapse team, a different type of rescue, to the site of the World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks.

Bentley went with a similar crew to the Pentagon after the attacks.

Montgomery County is the nearest rescue unit with the capacity to respond to a trench incident. Prince George's and Baltimore counties also have the specialty.

On Sunday, the local rescue workers were practicing a common construction accident where two workers were buried while installing wire or piping in a deep trench.

The plow of a backhoe was still positioned in the trench. Murray said construction crews are required by Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration to have a cage or some protective device for workers who are digging in trenches more than 5 feet deep. He said often the crews try to dig the buried workers out with company equipment because they are trying to cover their mistake.

Murray said any vibration on the ground may cause additional dirt to fall on victims, so crews park vehicles away from the site.

It typically takes an hour per foot to remove dirt from victims, who will likely be going into shock once removed, he said.

Murray said victims get "compartment syndrome," meaning the pressure of the dirt upon them cuts off circulation and raises acid levels in their bloodstream, which swells their bodies.

Often, he said, the patients have to have their skin broken open in order to treat muscles and reduce swelling. He said trench accident patients are usually sent to trauma centers and then to a dive chamber like the one at University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

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