Monday, January 13, 2014

Pain, Sweat and Grunts

Photos, at least the kind I like to take, are supposed to tell a story. Really good photographs need no words to get the message across.

Sometimes, circumstances do not allow the photographer to get the shot that he wants. The subject's face is not visible, the physical limitations of the scene restrict he photographer's movement, the unavailability of preferred equipment.  At other times, the photographer messes up and misses the definitive moment, the split second that defines the subject matter being photographed. Sometimes, all of the above conspire to require the addition of words to the story and the photos become supplemental to the story and the words become essential. 

I dropped by the tower the other day, in hopes that I could catch an engine company out on drill. As luck would have it, I found an engine drilling a probationary employee. As luck would also have it, it appeared that the boot may not have been performing as well as some would have liked. The distraction of a photographer clicking away would not have been welcomed so I opted to wander over to the pile, a training prop used to train people in the fine art of structural collapse rescue.

A multi-agency drill was in progress. Part of a structural collapse certification course. Most of the class were from Cal/Fire - Riverside County FD, people I did not know. There were a few folks from my dept. and a few from the county that I knew from the FEMA USAR team. From them I was able to find the person in charge and get approval to shoot. For that, I am grateful.

Two crews were working on the pile, with two separate operations in progress. I picked one and went to work.

In our prop, you usually have to go up before you can go down. Everything has to be hauled to the access point, usually up a ladder. In this case, someone has determined that the atmosphere is potentially hazardous and has set up forced ventilation. Two people are standing by should something go wrong.

Most of the working areas of our prop have easier ways of access than the rescuers are allowed to use. This enables an easy escape route should something go wrong. It also works for me, I can get into the pile without affecting the scenario.

I gained access and entered the prop, finding the rescue well under way. At first, I am laying flat on my back,  shooting up at the ceiling.

The rescuer is on the left, the victim is Pops, a tenth generation dummy that has managed to retain the same name over the years, despite having been replaced at least a dozen times. The objective is lift Pops from the floor of the vault into the black pipe, then move him horizontally to a second vault from where he could be lifted to the surface. It's quite a bit of work, even when things are going well. When things are not going well it can be brutal. Most of the work is done dangling in the air. Leverage and stability decrease dramatically when not firmly planted on the floor.

There were some issues with this evolution, things were not going as well as the team had hoped. Due to the respiratory hazard, the rescuer is breathing off of SCBA with all of his breathing air on his back. This limits the amount of time that he can work before a bottle change is required. That turned out to be a factor and the plan had to be changed.

Even the act of leaving the work space is a lot of work. The rescuer lowered Pops back to the floor, then lifted himself back to the pipe using a Z-rig lift system. Many grunts ensued, the rescuer expending tremendous amounts of energy to remove himself from the area. That his SCBA hung up on the edge of the pipe as he was trying to get back in did not help matters. I felt for him.

After the first rescuer departed, a second appeared. This one was breathing air through an umbilical system and brought a ladder with him. An umbilical air system has it's advantages. A large supply of air and no bottle on your back are the main ones. The down side is that the air line itself along with the communication line can be a pain as well.

The ladder was a good idea, however it's length prevented it from being removed from the horizontal pipe. It had to be grunted back out to the surface, again with a large amount of work being done while dangling in the air. More sweat, more grunts.

Pops never complained about the delay.

The plan reverted back to #A, this time with the different rescuers. The Z rig and brute strength used to get Pops up in the air, the difficulty was in making the transition from the vertical lift into the horizontal pipe. The anchor point for the Z rig was not quite high enough so Pops had to be grunted up the last foot or so, then stuffed into the pipe.

The instructors began to take an interest, they were running out of day. Setting up for nights ops adds another component to the scenario, one that they. nor anyone had any interest in at that point.

The guy in the pipe is lifting, using brute strength. Grunting, pain and sweat ensues.

The guy dangling is pushing for all he is wort as well. More grunting, more pain, more sweat.

Still no word from Pops.

Finally, after much effort, Pops is in the pipe, on his way to the surface. As the main objective was met, the instructors called it. All that was left was picking up the toys.

All of the equipment used in the drill had to go back on the rigs and be ready for use as soon as the unit was back in service.

After all of the equipment is put away, the post action huddle is conducted. All of the effort was for the purpose of training. As everyone has a different perspective of the scenario, it is important to discuss the event, with all of the players participating. What worked, what didn't. What policies or procedures might have helped. How can the evolution be improved.

How can the job be done better. That is what this was all about.

Thanks for reading,


P.S. After all of the gear was stowed and the event discussed, Pops was left in a heap, uncomplaining unneeded until the next training session. Just like he has for ever.


  1. I'd add a nice receiver and a speaker to Pops, then give the transmitter to some brass-hat with a sense of humor.

    This is an outstanding article, by the way. Thanks for the effort!

    I don't know why (lifting Pops, maybe) but while I was reading this I suddenly remembered the very first time I watched someone deal with an unconscious person - his girlfriend. He was average height and athletic looking in his early 20s; she was a few inches shorter than he, well-built, athletic and in her early 20s.

    We were all standing in line and the woman passed out. He caught her before she hit the deck, then he tried to get a better hold on her. That was almost impossible, as she was heavy and completely boneless. He finally managed, with a LOT of struggle, to move about ten feet away into a clear space and lay her down comfortably.

    I was about 10 years old, and suddenly understood the fireman's carry and that TV was a pack of lies. I also wondered (aloud) why no one stepped forward to help him, as there were several able bodied men available. My father was there, and would have stepped up if asked, but Dad would never volunteer for anything.

    Neither of my parents had an answer about the volunteers. Later on I discovered that it was impossible to actually mimic an unconscious person; no one could really get that completely limp, lights out effect.

    1. Mad Jack - There's no weight like dead weight, I lesson that I learned the hard way. They call it "dead" weight for a reason.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Oh man, BTDT, and I'm WAY too old anymore... It's HARD even when you're in shape! Great post!!!

    1. You and me both old NFO, I was reminded of that fact when I crawled into the pile to take the photos.

      Thanks for the comment