All eyes were fixed on a body dropping 13 stories from the roof of Seminary Towers last Thursday.
Those eyes belonged to the men and women responsible for bringing that body to the ground safely. They were part of the joint Technical Rescue Teams (TRT) of the Alexandria City and Arlington County fire departments.
Although it was only a training exercise, it highlighted the skills and dedication of these specialized firefighters to meet the challenges posed by America post 9/11. And, they were consciously aware of what many of them had experienced in real time just 23 months previously.
Last week's exercise focused on bringing a trapped victim from a great height or in a precarious situation to safety. It required not only technical skills but also synchronized teamwork. The absence of either could result in death or, at the least, serious life-altering injury — in training or real scenario.
"This is the most stressful and complicated exercise as far as rope rescue is concerned," said Capt. Mark Dalton, Alexandria Fire Department. "In addition to bringing people off a roof, it can also be used to rescue people from a cliff or caught in treacherous water situations."
The teams are tasked with providing special knowledge, skills and equipment for rescuing people trapped in vehicles, confined spaces, trench collapses, high-angle situations, and structural collapses. The latter became etched in the memories for both squads, Sept. 11, 2001.
"We can use this method of rescue in both building collapses and high-water situations," said Alexandria Capt. Phil Perry. "We are trying to do this training at least once a year. This is our advanced class, Level 3. They've already had Level 1 and 2 training."
DURING THE EXERCISE at Seminary Towers, one crew was positioned on the ground and another on the roof of the high-rise apartment complex at 4701 Kenmore Ave. Both had to secure and feed the orange horizontal track line and the blue-and-white horizontal control line.
The track line was the one to which a victim would be attached and brought to safety. The control line served the dual purpose of supporting the track line and being an emergency backup in case of trouble with the primary line. The track line is capable of supporting 13,500 pounds, according to Dalton.
"If we have to rescue an injured or incapacitated person, the line is strong enough to support that person, in or out of a Stokes basket, plus rescue personnel traveling with them," Perry explained. The Stokes basket is the name given to the wire stretcher used in rescue operations.
"You have to account for the various forces being applied to the operation," Perry said. "All the hardware being used had 850 pounds in play," as members of the TRT's were brought to the ground.
High on the roof, Arlington County firefighter Robert Ickes prepared to dangle 13 stories above the concrete walkway below him, as his teammates checked and rechecked the lines that would send him to those waiting below. "Are you all strapped in?" they asked. "Yea," he answered as he edged out into space.
ABOUT FOUR FEET from the roof's edge, as he dangled in midair, Ickes' descent halted as the control line was readjusted to fit through the guide. "We knot lines together to give greater length and strength," Lt. David Bigozi explained. "But it also means feeding it by hand through the guide." Just then Ickes started to move once again.
Friday's combined drill also called for the teams to convey personnel from one high-rise building to another by the use of the same type rope-and-pulley systems. This was done between buildings 4901 and 4921 at the Southern Towers apartment complex on Seminary Road.
"That exercise is more physically demanding then the one here at Seminary Towers," both Perry and Dalton emphasized. "Here, we have gravity working with us. There, the teams have to use all their strength to move the bodies through the air from one location to the other."
Alexandria's TRT, formally established in 1987, is composed of personnel assigned to Rescue Engine 206 and Truck Company 208. It has 25 approved premium-pay positions.
To receive that premium pay, a member must be certified in Rope Rescue I and II, Vehicle Rescue, Confined Space Rescue, and Trench Rescue. There are an additional 21 trained support personnel who maintain their certifications through Virginia Department of Fire Programs and FEMA training programs. They are available to supplement the regular teams on large or long-duration deployments.
Alexandria and Arlington TRT's not only train together but have responded to mutual deployments. On Sept. 13, 2001, Alexandria's TRT was requested by Arlington TRT for deployment at the Pentagon.
A total of 31 members responded, providing 2,340 personnel hours over a 10-day deployment, records show.
Department acknowledgments of that event state, "Their expert knowledge and skills were harmonized with the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Teams for the purpose of shoring the structure [Pentagon] from further collapse, searching for survivors, and assisting in recovering the remains of the deceased.
"They accomplished that mission by working their way through approximately 20,000 square feet of totally destroyed structure ... to make the area safe for the FBI, military, and FEMA officials."
But as both Dalton and Perry pointed out, TRT operations are far from limited to catastrophes such as 9/11. Alexandria's TRT responds to an average of 80 incidents per year.
ON APRIL 29, 2002, they answered a mutual aid call to assist in search and rescue in La Plata, Md., immediately following a tornado that nearly obliterated that town. They have also responded in high-water situations.
Recently the teams began a complete recertification training program and restructuring of the deployment system to become compliant with a new National Fire and Protection Association Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents.
This required risk analysis and the establishment of team capabilities. It is an ongoing program to have all members certified at the technician level of skills and competence.