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Firefighters take on search and rescue training
Program includes training in ropes, confined space and structural collapse rescue
Josh Moreno, Hall County Fire Services firefighter engineer, lowers himself into a trench Thursday at a search and rescue training facility in Gainesville as part of a Georgia search and rescue program. This particular program, which focuses on trench rescue, requires 40 hours of training. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Gainesville's firefighters can dig trenches, tie knots and climb through debris.

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

On Thursday, Gainesville firefighters worked with 10 other Northeast Georgia fire departments to practice trench rescue techniques at a training facility on Fullenwider Road.

"If anything happens, such as a parking deck collapse, we can send in a task force to help," said Capt. Skip Heflin, a Hall County firefighter and one of the search and rescue instructors. "After Katrina, one of Georgia's forces went in for about 20 days to give aid."

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 structural collapses.

Gainesville's station will also house a special truck outfitted with $1.1 million in search and rescue equipment.

"The idea is that the state provides emergency services that are supported locally," Heflin said. "Gainesville maintains the equipment, but it's a regional effort to respond to disasters when needed."

The group began the third section of training Monday by working on trench rescue techniques. The team worked through different scenarios together and reached the highest difficult of training Thursday.

"Today we're working on a T-trench, which is a piece of excavated land shaped like a ‘T,' where the victim has fallen in the middle," said Lt. Gary Clark, a Gainesville fire firefighter who instructs alongside Heflin.

"They have to create a protective zone to dig out the victim. A situation like this could happen anywhere that a construction site drops more than five feet."

The group has already completed ropes training and confined spaces courses this year and will tackle structural collapse training next month.

"A lot of the principles transfer from one course to the other," Heflin said. "They use ropes and knots in the trenches, and in structural collapse they learn about shoring up the sides and transferring energy."

The firefighters also learned how to ventilate ditches, manage water line breaks and haul buckets of dirt to reach a victim.

"They're ingrained to get water on a building as fast as possible, but here we have to change gears and slow down, which is an interesting switch," Clark said. "It's more methodical because we have to make sure what we're doing is safe for the rescuers and the victims."

Firefighters from Banks and Barrow counties handed down structural support beams as Hall County and Gainesville workers secured them in place.

"I've always had an interest in search and rescue, but this takes it to the next level to apply what we should do in specific situations," said Lt. Eddie Farmer, a firefighter from Athens-Clarke County. "The people here are from some of the best departments in Northeast Georgia, and they all bring a little something different to the table."

After the group completes certification training next month, they'll attend several eight-hour courses each year to keep track of the latest rescue techniques.

"It's excellent hands-on training with a heavy emphasis on the safety of the workers and crew," said Capt. Jason Patterson, a Gainesville firefighter going through search and rescue training for the first time. "It's not available for many departments, so we're fortunate to get this special training locally."