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Firefighters Face Challenge

Improving skills and expertise today can save a life tomorrow.

More than 300 Technical Rescue specialists from fire departments throughout the Commonwealth converged on Northern Virginia this week to deal with a trench cave-in, a collapsed parking garage, a downed helicopter, victims trapped in a building collapse, and the rescue of individuals stranded on the roof of an urban high rise. None of it was real ā€” this time.

But, all these scenarios have occurred in the past and, most likely, will again, plus others equally or more deadly. When they do these members of fire department search and rescue teams will put their lives on the line to save others.

That is why the training exercises undertaken at four venues throughout the area from Monday through Thursday as part of the 12th Annual Rescue Challenge are essential to maintaining the abilities and expertise called upon in disasters such as The Pentagon on Sept. 11.

That was then. This is now. But, the threat is constant, whether it be from a terrorist act, natural disaster or human accident. Skills necessary to meet those challenges must be constantly sharpened and enhanced. That was the goal of the Rescue Challenge.

"One of the toughest events we've ever had in this area was The Pentagon on 9/11. We cannot be as strong as we were that day without the bonds we build with each other in exercises like these," Chief Jim Schwartz, Arlington County Fire Department, told the 300 firefighters assembled at Pentagon South Hotel, 4660 Kenmore Avenue, Monday morning during opening ceremonies.

He was joined in that welcome by Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris who alerted the participants, "Know that all your expertise will come into play here this week." Those two department's served as co-hosts for the event which moves around the state on a two to three year cycle. They will again host next's year's event.

Two additions to this year's training exercises were Fort Belvoir Fire Department's team and one from Montgomery County Fire Department Fire. The latter, as well as the team from Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, have received national recognition for their work on disasters stretching from Indonesia to the Gulf Coast.

"We are all in this together. After 9/11 we realized we were not banded together. We are in support of all of you. We have the best emergency management teams in the world right here in Northern Virginia," said General Guy Swan, Commanding General, Military District of Washington.

"There is a brotherhood among firefighters and we are happy to be brought into that brotherhood. The best thing we can all get out of this exercise is to learn from each other," he said.

"What's being done in this region here this week is going to make us much better prepared in case of any emergency, large or small. This is a good example of being prepared," said Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille.

FOLLOWING THE OPENING SESSION the various teams broke into groups with their team leaders to be briefed on the assignments they were about to face. As emphasized by event coordinator Captain Phillip Perry, Alexandria Fire Department, "This is not a competition. This is a training/learning exercise."

Over the four days, teams rotated through four venues testing their skills in such tactics as trench and rope rescue, dealing with domestic terrorism, rescuing the crew of a downed helicopter, entering extremely confined spaces such as a collapsed building and multi-level parking garage to extricate trapped victims, and covering an obstacle course that included dealing with a prison break.

These scenarios were carried out at:

* Vulcan Quarry off Van Dorn Street

* The former USA Today building in Rosslyn

* The former Youth Detention Center at Lorton

* Fort Belvoir's Engineering Proving Ground

At each site were staff observers from Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax County, Fort Belvoir, and the state of Virginia. There was also a safety officer assigned to each site to make sure that all the participants returned home safely.

"If there is a difference of opinion on how something should be done, the safety officer's opinion is paramount. If you can't live with that, have a nice day and we'll see you next year," Perry told the crowd before turning them loose.

"These exercises are purposely designed to be very realistic in every respect. That also means there's a lot of real danger in each event," Perry explained.

More than 10 Technical Rescue Teams from as far away as Roanoke participated in events beginning at 8:30 a.m. and concluding at approximately 4:30 p.m. each day. Of the total 300 firefighters, Alexandria and Arlington County fire departments had 10 team members and 10 support personnel each, according to Robert Luckett, chief deputy Fire Marshal, Alexandria.

Each team had two hours to complete each assignment. At the end of that time efforts ceased. There were evaluations of performances at the end of each day to find ways to improve.