More than two dozen firefighters from Hays, Colby and Ellis County got specialized training over the weekend on what to do in the event a trench collapses.
“A car wreck is a normal everyday fire and rescue,” said Tim Detrixhe, technical rescue coordinator for the Hays Fire Department. “But a trench rescue adds so much risk and danger to it that you have to get special training and have special equipment to fix that problem. We keep current on that kind of training because we operate the Hays Fire Department-Ellis County Fire Department technical rescue team.”
Technical rescues are those that require special equipment and training, whether at a grain bin, requiring ropes from a high angle like a wind turbine, at a building collapse following an earthquake or tornado, or in a confined space.
A trench rescue is one from a hole that is deeper than it is wide, said Detrixhe, who on Monday explained the trench training, which was the first of its kind at the department’s new dedicated training facility at the old Frank Stremel Softball Fields on Old U.S. Highway 40 and Chetolah Creek.
Trenches become an issue when work crews dig trenches or pits to fix sewer lines or for a building foundation, he said.
“Where the danger lies, from time to time, people hop down in those things that are maybe 8- to 12-feet deep to do a little bit of work and the trench will fall in on them,” Detrixhe said, noting the soil below the ground surface becomes very heavy. “You’re looking at about 100 pounds a cubic foot. If that falls in on you, you become entangled, entrapped, and it doesn’t take very long to become overcome by it, and it happens in the blink of an eye.”
That kind of weight can cause a crush injury, suffocation or trauma, said Hays Fire Chief Ryan Hagans. “It could literally just put enough pressure on your chest where you can’t breathe.”
A three-foot by three-foot box amounts to a ton of dirt.
“A hundred pounds per cubic foot, over a cubic yard, that’s 2,700 pounds,” Detrixhe said. “So that’s almost a ton and a half in one cubic yard.”
A rescue is a time-sensitive operation, said Hagans.
“If there’s someone that we can save, we’re willing to risk ourselves to save them,” he said.
“If it’s a known recovery,” said Detrixhe, “we’re going to slow down and make sure no one of us gets hurt in the process.”
For a rescue, firefighters practice shoring to create a safe space to work, like they did this past weekend.
“We have to make sure that once we go in there the trench isn’t going to hurt us also,” Detrixhe said. For that, they use several pieces of equipment, including trench panels to hold back the dirt and soil, and struts that span the panels to hold them in place.
The atmosphere in the hole is also monitored with special equipment to make sure there isn’t a concentration of some toxin in the bottom of the hole.
The equipment is much more simple for a rescue.
“We can’t bring in heavy equipment, like a backhoe, close to that trench,” Hagans said. “Any sort of vibration could cause a secondary collapse of the trench, so it’s literally shovels and buckets.”
For the training on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the firefighters used equipment from the department’s technical rescue trailer, including new Paratech Rescue Struts purchased with a grant from the Northwest Kansas Homeland Security Council.
“They put us lightyears ahead of where we were. They’re safer, they’re faster,” Detrixhe said. “They’re a metal tube with a screw on the inside that you can hook up to air to shoot these things into place, with air power versus cutting lumber and doing it kind of the craftsman style of way.”
The trench training was the first hosted training since the opening of the new Hays Fire Department facility. The Kansas Fire and Rescue Training Institute from the University of Kansas conducted the training.
The technical rescue team works from a self-sufficient technical equipment trailer. It’s outfitted with everything needed for a technical rescue, from lumber, struts, carpentry tools and saws to hammers, nails, ropes, gas cans, lights, concrete drills and pop-up tents.
The team will go anywhere, said Hagans.
“The big departments, they have specialists, but our guys are doing everything,” he said. “Our capabilities, the equipment that we have, we’re very fortunate to have it, and not just Hays and Ellis County, we’ll go pretty much anywhere, we’ll take a fire truck anywhere. We’ve been to Ransom, Stockton, Great Bend, Ellsworth. When someone calls for help, we’re going to go.”