By JESSICA CRAWFORD
• Daily Leader
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final part in a three-part series involving local firefighting training.
The Liberal Fire Department did not rest Thursday as it continued rescue training. The department was crucially involved in two high-tension rescue operations: one from the basement of Southwest Medical Center in the morning and the other from the old Liberal High School building in the afternoon.
At 8:50 a.m., a call was dispatched alerting emergency responders of a possible explosion in the boiler room area of the hospital, Deputy Chief Skeety Poulton said.
“While the units were in route, they were told there were numerous calls from the public on this,” he said. “When they arrived, the first responding unit was met by one of the maintenance personnel who came out and told them that there was an explosion in the basement and there were numerous people trapped down there.”
Instructor Chad Winton felt a curve ball was in order to get the department back into the mind set of fighting fire, with a rescue operation underway.
“A little different scenario today,” he said. “They are having to incorporate their firefighter skills that they weren’t expecting as a part of this training. They have been doing ropes for four days.”
Firefighters entering the basement of the hospital had to simulate zero visibility conditions. Other senses were kicked into overdrive as they worked to locate the wounded during the drill.
“They took their protective hoods and put them on backwards, they can’t see what they are doing,” Winton said. “It is just like being in smoke conditions, there is no visibility whatsoever. They have to do everything by feel, touch and communication. This is about as realistic as you can make it without actually starting a fire.”
Chief Kelly Kirk said the operation was put together rather quickly by Poulton in an effort to satisfy a mass casualty drill for not only the LFD, but the Liberal Police Department and Emergency Medical Services as well.
“That is the purpose of these drills, everybody is exposing themselves to some things that they would do differently in a situation,” Kirk said. “That is why we do the mass casualty drills. We also throw the fire crews a loop. They have been training on this rope rescue all week. They were so focused on that, but we gave them the big fire issue to deal with as well that caused them to stumble out of the blocks a little bit. But they are really getting their systems put together.”
With Captain Troy Emery in command of the operations, Poulton was pleased with the outcome. Although fatigue was beginning to show within the department, he said, it pulled together as a solid unit.
“They did outstanding,” Poulton said. “We threw fire back into the mix. They are physically exhausted, mentally exhausted. They not only had to deal with the rescue aspect, but the fire simultaneously. It just added more to it. We wanted them to think outside of the box and they did very well.
“The teamwork that has come together in the last four days, I can’t even put into words,” Poulton continued. “They are working together like they have never worked before. We have always been a close-knit group, but we got people now that would be able to step into any role and fill any position and do just fine. It is incredible.”
Not much down time was experienced by the department as another called rolled in from dispatch shortly after 1 p.m.
“The report was that there is a kid that is screaming in there, he has fallen,” Poulton said. “They have to assume this second story window is how he got in the building. They have no idea, they have been told he has possibly fallen into the basement.
“Most of these guys have never been in this building and have no idea where they are going – and they have to go find him,” he explained. “They have to ladder the second story, get in there, rescue him out of the basement, pull him back up to the first floor and carry him to the third floor. They have to take him out of the only exit, which is the window on the far south side. It is going to be a challenge.”
Poulton explained the thought process behind such intense training. Without himself or Kirk in command, he said, the shift officers must step up to the plate.
“We are not always going to be there,” he said of himself and Kirk. “The company officers are our first line when they get there. This is forcing them to get the experience on a practice level long before it is really going to happen in a real deal. Best chance you can get to be in that role, because if something goes wrong, we are training – that is the time we want that to happen. A lot of these officers are out of their comfort zone because it is a new topic.
When the mock patient was safely on the ground, Captain Brian Fornwalt was pleased with the outcome operation.
“They did really good,” he said. “It just took awhile to get him from the gym all the way to the third floor. They did a good job. They all worked together very well.”
Instructor Chad Winton was thankful for the opportunity to bring such new training to Liberal via the 2009 Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program under the United States Department of Homeland Security.
“We have spent a week in a discipline that doesn’t get addressed a lot,” he said. “This is new to Liberal. Obviously, we identified the need for it. We spent two days in the classroom, we spent two days on buildings. We put it together piece by piece. Firefighting is very dangerous, rescue is dangerous.”
He was impressed with the retention the department displayed as they put what they had learned into practice. However, he said, when they go back to the station, anything can happen.
“Great, great group of guys,” he said. “They are tired, they are exhausted. They don’t want to lose, they want to make it happen. There are six individuals that are on shift today. An hour from now, they could be really doing this.”