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Firefighters practice search-and-rescue tactics during training
Members complete almost 300 hours of training
Gainesville firefighter Derrick Rogers, right, pulls Friday as teammates lay down metal pipes for a 2,000-pound block to be pushed over during a search-and-rescue training drill. - photo by Tom Reed

Gainesville and Hall County firefighters know the secret behind building the pyramids in Egypt.

It merely requires a little knowledge of physics to maneuver a 2,000-pound concrete and steel block with ropes, rollers and ramps.

The skills make up a portion of what it takes to become a certified search-and-rescue officer in Georgia.

On Friday, firefighters from several Northeast Georgia fire departments practiced structural collapse techniques at a training facility on Allen Creek Road.

"This class is very dangerous because, in a real scenario, you're working with machines, heavy objects and different tools on a rubble pile," said Capt. Skip Heflin, a Hall County firefighter and one of the search-and-rescue instructors.

"You really have to be on your toes. We wear helmets, eye protection, steel-toe boots and hydration packs," he said. "You have to be prepared when you're working for long hours to move heavy objects and help victims in a collapsed structure."

The group will wrap up a week of 10-hour training days Monday with a final test by digging through rubble piles created from debris of the Jesse Jewell Parkway public safety building.

"This week has been very tiring but rewarding, and we're gaining knowledge that we can use locally," said Hall County Capt. Mark Arnold. "Hall County has a lot of natural disasters, so we can provide this service here at home if needed or other areas in the state."

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency handpicked Gainesville to be a Georgia Search and Rescue Program host site, which means firefighters are trained to respond to emergencies in GEMA's
24-county Area 1 region, which includes Hall, Jackson, Banks and White counties.

The search-and-rescue team members must complete close to 300 hours of training each, including techniques with rope rescues, confined spaces and trench rescue. This week's course wrapped up the final piece of training.

Gainesville's station will house a special truck outfitted with $1.1 million in search and rescue equipment. GEMA has also approved Gainesville for a canine program that will provide funding for the purchase and ongoing cost of hosting a search-and-rescue dog.

"When I went into Catoosa County and Ringgold yesterday to help with the tornado damage, we called in a team and several dogs to help," Heflin said.

"Being there was one way of put this training to work. I could talk to the team about importance of building markings and how's it confusing to keep up unless we mark which places have been searched for victims and hazards."

The state's search-and-rescue program helped firefighters to jump in immediately to clean up debris, noted Ronnie Register, fire services coordinator for GEMA and GSAR.

"We have the same curriculum, same equipment and identical trucks, so when everyone knows the training, we mesh together well," said Register, who helped in Ringgold on Thursday and returned to the training course on Friday. "It pays off when something like yesterday morning happens. We worked with a lot of guys I taught, and to see them take that and put it to work to save lives really pays off."