Search and Recue

Search and Recue

Arlington, Alexandria teams practice for crucial moment.

Anyone in a tight spot wants these people to be there for them, especially if that tight spot is meant literally, not figuratively.

They are the specialists within the Alexandria and Arlington County Fire Departments known as the Heavy Technical Rescue Teams [HTR]. They were among first on the scene at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, and the last to leave.

"Whenever we do anything in technical rescue, Arlington and Alexandria work together," said Captain Scott McKay, Arlington County Fire Department. This applies to all their assignments, not just Sept. 11.

"The readiness of these teams was proven at the Pentagon. We've been working together for 10 years," Captain Terry Kisner, Rescue Coordinator, Alexandria Fire Department said. "We were not only able to start immediately at the Pentagon but we integrated with the FEMA teams as they arrived."

That tragic event may have gained them national visibility, but these two squads of northern Virginia's first responders have been working together for 10 years to save lives on a daily basis. And they constantly continue to hone their skills.

Last week 50 students, drawn from both departments, were being initiated into one of the most critical elements of their assignment — building collapse extraction. It is the technique of how to deal with a lethal pile of concrete and twisted steel to save a life, often clinging by a thread of human hope and determination.

The last living victim of the terrorist attack on Manhattan's Twin Towers was recently released from the hospital in New York City. He owes his life to the expertise of his fellow New York City firefighters on that HTR Team who were able to save him by painstakingly and pragmatically applying their knowledge over a continuous 40 plus hour period.

Last year the Alexandria HTR took top honors at the 20th Virginia Rescue Challenge in Roanoke. This annual event challenges HTR teams from throughout the state in all phases of HTR rescue efforts -- those that defy conventional life saving measures.

Some of their specialties include rescues from confined spaces, high angles, trenches, crushed vehicles, industrial accidents and collapsed buildings. The event that secured the top spot for the Alexandria team was performing search and rescue techniques under the scenario of a simulated building collapse.

Just four months after the competition, Alexandria and Arlington County HTR teams found themselves side by side at the Pentagon. This was not a drill. But it was a massive challenge.

<b>Team Work: Double "A" Effort </b>

<bt>Assembled into various teams at the Vulcan Quarry facility on Van Dorn Street in Alexandria, the students and 10 instructors from the two departments, worked in the rain and mud learning and perfecting the intricate tasks they would need in their chosen specialty of "Search and Rescue."

"We had at least 40 deployments last year. We're running all the time," Kisner said. "Each department has approximately 25 personnel devoted to HTR covering all three shifts seven days a week."

There are eight personnel on duty at all times with both teams being dispatched per call. During training week, which encompasses six days, students are working 10 hour days and instructors 12 hours per day.

Most sessions are conducted between the Alexandria Training Center at Lee Center, the burn building at the water treatment plant on South Payne Street, and the Vulcan Quarry facility. New recruit training is undertaken every two years, Kisner noted.

"Every other month we run coordinated drills," said George Lyon, Arlington Department Battalion Chief and Technical Rescue Program Director. "Putting together a technical rescue training session takes a lot of coordination."

<b>It Also Takes Community Support </b>

<bt>"We get tremendous support from the community and industry. This ranges from providing the facility location such as Vulcan, to making the concrete slabs for our guys to use in practice, to the use of equipment, like the Sunbelt back hoe in operation here today," Kisner was quick to point out.

The concrete slabs are provided by Virginia Concrete. "We create the slabs for them. When our trucks return at the end of a day, we pour the unused concrete into their forms. Then they either pick them up or we deliver them to the Vulcan Quarry site," said Kathie B. Land, a sales administrator for the company.

During the "Building Collapse Training" the crews learn skills heavy lifting and moving; breaching, the method of cutting concrete in a rubble pile; and how to break and move it.

"We also train how to get people safely out of a pile of concrete or how to get food, water and/or medicine to them," Kisner explained.

They also have to know how to get human aid, such as medical or rescue personnel, into the rubble to aid those trapped, according to Kisner. All of this must be accomplished without causing a cave-in that could prove fatal to the victim, the rescuers or both.

This May the two teams will again participate in the event known as "Rescue Challenge." It is being held in the Tidewater area of Virginia in 2002. Last week, the head of Alexandria's 2001 team, Lt. David Bogozi, was joining other instructors in training the neophytes how to deal with a collapsed building and the lives it could entomb.

As explained following the 2001 competition, of all the events throughout Rescue Challenge Week, only the building collapse drill is listed as a "challenge," all others are undertaken for training purposes.

Following that competition Bogozi stated, "We knew what we were faced with but we also knew we were up to the challenge."

Then came Sept. 11, and Rescue Challenge Week turned into rescue challenge 12 days, 24 hours a day, for both departments. But during those horrific hours and days the HTR Teams never lost sight of their calling: "Search and Rescue."