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Vermont Firefighters Descend on Hartford for Rescue Training

  • Joe Newton, left, and Chuck Keir, both of the Brattleboro Fire Department, brace a doorway during a simulation of a rescue inside a damaged White River Junction apartment house yesterday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Joe Newton, left, and Chuck Keir, both of the Brattleboro Fire Department, brace a doorway during a simulation of a rescue inside a damaged White River Junction apartment house yesterday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Firefighters from departments around Vermont clean up the training site in White River Junction after a day of technical rescue exercises yesterday. The Hartford Fire Department hosted the course taught by Capitol Technical Rescue of Albany, N.Y. that began Monday and continues through today. Thirty firefighters from nine departments across the state participated in the exercises that involved rescuing mannequins buried under debris in the building. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Firefighters from departments around Vermont clean up the training site in White River Junction after a day of technical rescue exercises yesterday. The Hartford Fire Department hosted the course taught by Capitol Technical Rescue of Albany, N.Y. that began Monday and continues through today. Thirty firefighters from nine departments across the state participated in the exercises that involved rescuing mannequins buried under debris in the building. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Joe Newton, left, and Chuck Keir, both of the Brattleboro Fire Department, brace a doorway during a simulation of a rescue inside a damaged White River Junction apartment house yesterday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Firefighters from departments around Vermont clean up the training site in White River Junction after a day of technical rescue exercises yesterday. The Hartford Fire Department hosted the course taught by Capitol Technical Rescue of Albany, N.Y. that began Monday and continues through today. Thirty firefighters from nine departments across the state participated in the exercises that involved rescuing mannequins buried under debris in the building. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Pete Benedetto, wearing a hard hat and safety glasses, peered up at a vacant apartment complex on the banks of the Connecticut River. On the ground, squads of firefighters outfitted in heavy gear swarmed the building.

“It’s so hard to get good training buildings,” Benedetto reflected.

To people in cars passing the scene, it looked like a multi-alarm response with crews busy rescuing people from the building. But for Benedetto, the lead instructor for Albany, N.Y.-based safety consultants Capital Technical Rescue, it was a case of extraordinary good luck. The town-owned structure was an ideal venue to conduct emergency rescue training classes, where 30 firefighters from nine fire departments from across the state have been practicing all week at the foot of the bridge connecting White Water Junction to West Lebanon.

The subject of this week’s exercises has been “collapse rescue training,” or how firefighters force their way, sometimes inch by inch, through caved-in structures in order to reach someone trapped inside the rubble. Danny Gedney, a Rutland firefighter, said the exercises provides valuable training for a variety of emergency scenarios.

For example — think of the barn fire in Chester, Vt. a couple of years ago, or a car crashing through a storefront, trapping the driver, he said.

Or, as Benedetto mentioned, houses that shifted off their foundations and collapsed with people inside during Tropical Storm Irene.

“This is not typical training,” Gedney said. “This is something above and beyond.”

The training exercises were made possible by a $60,000 federal grant from the Department of Homeland Security, said Gedney, who helped coordinate it.

Yesterday’s exercises were the first of a two-day emergency simulation, the week’s final exam. After small squads climbed through the house’s first-story window, they were instructed to reinforce theoretically crumbling walls and ceilings with supports. Only when the shoring process was judged satisfactory by one of the instructors could the teams move on to the next step, gradually advancing toward the “victims” in the building.

The victims, in fact, were four life-sized mannequins placed behind improvised plywood walls and covered in debris, which needed to be carefully removed before they could be rescued: audio devices placed inside the mannequins made audible sounds of people crying out for help.

Meanwhile, another squad positioned itself in the building’s basement, getting to work on providing structural support for the safety of their colleagues above. As they hammered nails into pieces of lumber, U2 played on a nearby radio.

The training took on particular importance to firefighters of the Hartford Fire Department. Lt. Chris Dube noted that the town’s fire department is the lead agency for a rescue team that encompasses the southern half of the state, placing it in line to respond to a wide variety of emergencies.

“We kind of take the lead on this,” he said, standing by the first-story window that served as an entry point into the house for both firefighters and supplies. He added that he’s been involved with similar rescue training exercises in the past, but a refresher course is always valuable — plus, a benefit for less experienced firefighters.

“If there’s an incident in southern Vermont,” said Hartford firefighter Keith Morse, “we’re going.”

As the afternoon wore on, a group of four firefighters — one from Montpelier and three from Brattleboro — completed a frame, which they wedged close to ceiling height. The process took about an hour.

Cliff Freer, an instructor overlooking the group’s progress, walked over to two pieces of wood forming an “X” shape, standing in what used to be a living room, with refuse — a TV, a bowling trophy — piled behind it.

He grabbed a marker pen, pointed his headlight at the frame, and scrawled on the crossbeams:

“Group 4.” Space. “1502 hours.”

Soon after that, the squad took a break. Then it was back to work. Benedetto said the firefighters would next have to ascend up the stairs, where a piece of plywood had been placed on the landing, blocking the way to reach a pretend victim. Somewhere, tucked away under more debris, was another mannequin.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.