Firefighters train for disaster rescue
By John Howell
Firemen from six north Mississippi fire departments honed skills at the Batesville Fire Department’s Broome-Florence Fire Training Facility on Friday.
The firemen from Oxford, Southaven, Hernando, Tupelo, Amory and Batesville took turns rappelling down a tower built from shipping containers stacked end to end and welded together. They maneuvered over an open space on ropes stretched between the top of the tower and another vertical structure nearby and rescued a fall “victim” from inside the vertical shaft of the tower’s interior.
They are members of North Mississippi Task Force One who, along with members of similar task forces in south and central Mississippi, receive specialized training and equipment for disaster rescue and recovery.
With funding and coordination from the federal Office of Homeland Security (OHS), Mississippi’s task forces combine resources to render mutual aid throughout the state when needed, according to Mississippi Task Force One Leader, Panola County native Chris Olson. Mississippi’s task forces are also part of an Emergency Management Assistance Compact with OHS that mobilizes them for assistance out-of-state.
Last month, 31 Mississippi task force members, including 10 from Task Force One, were sent to Florida for assistance following Hurricane Irma.
“It was all water rescue,” Olson said, using eight boats in Clay County, Florida, where a flooded creek had swamped residential areas.
“We carried out people, dogs, cats — a little bit of everything,” Olson said.
Friday’s training at the Broome-Florence facility is part of monthly training task force members undergo to keep them familiar with skills and equipment.
But Friday’s exercises were all on dry ground. Or in dry air. Rappelling down the tower involves ropes and tackle originally developed by rock climbers. It also includes working up the nerve to take that first step — backwards — into thin air with the ground 50 feet below.
“All these guys know how, but regular practice keeps them sharp and builds confidence in their abilities and equipment,” Olson said.
Scenarios where specialized skills might be needed include structure collapse, rope rescue, confined space rescue, trench collapse rescue, swift water rescue and overland search, according to Olson.
Nor are the scenarios hypothetical. Before task force firemen started Friday’s final exercise, instructor Ben McMinn told them about a worker who died last summer from heat exhaustion atop the superstructure of the Mississippi River bridge at Natchez. Personnel and equipment from Mississippi central task force were mobilized to ascend the superstructure, secure the deceased worker’s body and lower it by ropes for final recovery.
Batesville’s Broome-Florence Fire Training Facility began with a bequest from the late Elizabeth Florence in memory of her brother, Dave Broome, who once served as Batesville’s fire chief. With city government approval, the fire department purchased metal shipping containers and joined them into configurations that allow simulations of enclosed, smoke-filled stairways, smoke-filled living areas where firemen practice finding “victims” in darkness and such other scenarios as only limited by firefighters’ imaginations.
“The public needs to appreciate this,” Olson said of the facility. “This is a valuable training asset.”