By George Potter
Toledo, Spain, is quite a bit smaller than its Ohio namesake, and quite a bit older, at least nearly 2,000 years older. The Spanish city is the capital of the Castilla-La Mancha autonomous region and is one of the nation’s most historic monuments. Between October 19 and 21, 2012, the city played host to the 23rd National Spanish Firefighters Congress.
This biannual event has evolved over the years into a multifaceted reunion of public service, volunteer, industrial, and aviation firefighters of all ranks, with presentations and discussions on timely fire protection themes and product and service exhibits during the mornings and afternoon hands-on-training sessions. Taking into account the economic crisis that is affecting so many countries and sectors, the congress organizer, ASELF–the Spanish Firefighters Association, considers this year’s meeting to have been highly successful. Although final attendance figures were slightly lower than initially expected, the active participation in assembly sessions and the participation workshops exceeded expectations.
The keynote speaker of the Congress was to have been Lt. General José Emilio Roldan, commander of the Military Emergency Situations Unit (UME), a combined force of Spanish Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel and resources organized in 2005 as a support force in the event of major catastrophes. General Roldan was obliged to attend an emergency command meeting in the Galicia region, where several provoked wildland fires were burning thousands of acres. His substitute, Colonel Gabriel Grimalt, explained the role of the UME in the framework of the nation’s emergency response structure. During the UME’s six years’ existence, personnel and material resources have responded to major wildland fires in various regions of the country, the ongoing El Hierro volcanic eruptions, and the Haitian and Lorca earthquake disasters, among many other interventions.
Other morning presentations included ASELF’s participation in several European training programs, including hazmat operations and confined fire combat, emergency response to incidents in wind turbines, national firefighter and instructor certifications, civil and penal liability concerns, fire department logistics, the roles of industrial fire brigades, intervention in hybrid vehicle emergencies, and fires in historic and monumental cities, among other subjects.
The 14 afternoon workshops and hands-on-training (HOT) sessions included computer applications of the European training programs; canine rescue operations; underwater search and rescue protocols; high-angle rescue; elevator rescue; forcible entry and electrical hazards; psychological aid to firefighters after suicide incidents; applied hydraulics in hoselays; thermal imaging cameras; hazmat incident management; backburning techniques in wildland fires; and wind turbine rescue operations. These sessions–some in classrooms or similar locations, others in specific training scenarios–attracted participation to such an extent that many of the sessions were forced to limit the numbers of participants and even extend their time frames.
How can a writer select one specific subject out of more than a dozen highly worthwhile topics without offending speakers or coordinators? One solution would be to select alphabetically. Another would be taking into account the international scope of one theme or another; still a third solution could be having been the coordinator of one of the activities. My particular solution was to combine all three. The “W” of wind turbine emergencies is the last letter of the activities list–actually the first by inverting the alphabetical order. This topic is of high interest around the world, and I am the coordinator of the Wind Energy Emergencies Technical Working Group of the Spanish Firefighters Association.
I discovered the interest in wind-turbine emergency response three years ago through a comment from Dennis Schultz on the Fire Engineering Training Community. After several exchanges, I delved into the subject here in Spain and discovered a whole new world of very complicated emergency situations that require very specific response actions. One result of this research was the article published in the April 2011 issue of Fire Engineering (“Response to Emergencies in Wind Turbines“) and another published later in the e-Newsletter.
Fires can break out in wind turbines of nearly any height–from ground level up to 300 or more feet aboveground. They can occur inside the aerogenerator assembly, in any of the various structures within the wind farm premises, or as wildland fires inside or outside of the facility–not to mention hazmat leaks and spills, vehicle accidents, structural collapse, and so on. Some of these fire incidents will require fire service response and intervention; others will oblige firefighters to sit around and watch several millions of dollars of high technology burn itself out high over their heads. However, when maintanence or service personnel experience situations that necessitate rescue operations, especially if the situation occurs at 300 feet aboveground and inside the generator assembly, emergency response teams must be prepared to act. This was the background that drew together human and material resources from ASELF, the Rioja and Guadalajara fire services, a wind farm operator near Toledo, and the National Eolic Energy Association.
The first phase of this particular activity was the presentation of the overall emergency response picture, including the entire spectrum of possible emergencies, the need to establish and maintain close working relationships between emergency response services and wind energy site operators in their response areas, and the creation and implementation of standard operating procedures (SOPs) covering all of these possibilities. Following this brief act, Arturo Arnalich, an officer of the Guadalajara provincial fire service, presented his department’s SOPs on wind turbine rescue operations. His comprehensive presentation covered these emergency situations and the absolute compliance with strict safety procedures established by the wind turbine site operators and the rescue service. The step-by-step sequence of a typical rescue scenario was explained to the attendees, who were able to appreciate the complexities of these operations.
The assembly presentation was followed by a two-afternoon HOT program, which was “complicated” by overbooking–nearly twice the number of participants initially anticipated were allowed to join the program. The workshop was held at a wind farm some 15 miles south of Toledo, situated along a mile-long ridge with five turbine towers atop the ridge. The model of wind turbine at this site presented a somewhat unique feature that presents certain complications for rescuers: The electrical current transformer is inside the nacelle, where the generator, gearboxes, propeller shafts, and similar hardware are also located. In most other models by other manufacturers, the transformers are “normally” at ground level, adjacent to the tower or close by, or at some intermediate point inside the tower. These transformers receive the current from the direct current (DC) generators and convert it to alternating current (AC) at around 11,000 volts, up to as much as 30,000 volts. High-tension lines from each transformer carry this tension to a nearby substation from where the total electric power is transmitted to distribution lines. The substations are another hazard site within the wind farms.
The first afternoon session was dedicated to familiarization with the technical rescue resources required for this type of operation and with the mechanical contents of the nacelle. Although all of the participants climbed up the interior vertical ladder, I rode up in the ridiculously small elevator–two passenger/530-pound capacity, which can be considered as a very confined space. An important consideration is that not all wind turbines are equipped with elevators, meaning that all rescue personnel will have to ascend by the ladder, carrying all their equipment. Depending on the urgency of the operation, it may be possible to use the winch normally located in the nacelle for maintenance purposes to get ropes, the stretcher, and other materials up to the nacelle.
As said before, inside the nacelle can be found a large-diameter drive shaft from the propeller assembly to the gearbox that multiplies the propeller rotation from 60 or so revolutions per minute (rpm) to more than 1,500 rpm; another shaft from the gearbox to the generator; switchboxes and other assorted control devices; variable diameter mid- and high-tension cables; and more miscellaneous equipment. All this makes the interior of the nacelle quite similar to the engine room of a small submarine.
During nearly two hours, more than 15 people–firefighters, site technicians and I–moved around the interior, getting familiar with the mechanics and numerous tight spaces that could hinder rescue operations. We even had the opportunity to access the base or “root” of the giant propellers. The exercise, in fact, involved a simulation of an injured operator in the propeller hub. The attendees descended by ladder and elevator. This first contact with the wind turbine was followed by hours of conversations among the participants, who demonstrated anxiety in anticipation of the exercise the following afternoon.
The second session began with the layout of the ropes and equipment on a tarp–ropes, pulleys, carabiners, ascenders, descenders, and the like. The instructors, Francisco Javier Herce and Eduardo López from the La Rioja regional fire service and Arturo Arnalich and Angel Gutierrez Diez of the Guadalajara provincial fire brigade, explained the uses of each element and the assembly of rescue and safety lines. They also explained the roles of each of the participants and where they would be working during the exercise. The victim, a dummy, had been taken up to the nacelle the previous afternoon and was situated near to the “accident” scene. Again, everyone climbed the 300-odd rungs. Since the group was larger than originally expected, the several “onlookers” were distributed around the machinery space in such a way so they would interfere as little as possible with the operation and yet be able to clearly observe the exercise.
The “rescue” began with locating the victim and assessing his injuries. Then, the rescuers had to remove the victim from the hub through a tight trapdoor that separated the hub from the machinery area, get him onto the stretcher, and stabilize him. The trapdoor was used for accessing and removing parts and equipment with the chain winch situated at the extreme tail end of the nacelle, just in front of the transformer. The victim, therefore, had to be transported by hand from the hub across the propeller shaft and gearbox. Once in the vicinity of the trapdoor, he was readied for removal.
Prior to the victim’s descent, safety ropes and guides had been installed and secured and dropped to a member of the rescue crew on the ground. Because of the tight space and the reduced dimensions of the trapdoor, the stretcher had to be positioned vertically, head up, for exit. Once completely out of the nacelle and secured by team members, one of the members exited the nacelle and situated the stretcher in the horizonal position for descent. Slowly, the pair descended along the tower, the rescuer ensuring that the victim would not bump into the metal structure during descent. The ground-level assistant constantly monitored the descent and had to pull the descending pair away from the tower at several points. Once on the ground, the victim was again assessed by an ambulance crew and “transported” to a hospital.
Equipment was recovered, revised, and packed in their corresponding containers for future use. The instructors held a critique with the participants, highlighting the “rights and wrongs” of the operation. Post-exercise discussions lasted for several hours. The exercise has prompted a great deal of interest from participants and non-participants alike in furthering training in this rescue situation. This exercise proved to be an invaluable training opportunity in high-angle technical rescue as well as confined space rescue techniques. It also demonstrated the absolute necessity for SOPs.
Congress Finale: Multiple-Victim Auto Accident
Mid-morning of the final day of the Congress, a simulated automobile accident rescue exercise was held around one of the city’s most historic access bridges. The scenario was a car with three passengers that supposedly crashed and fell off the bridge. One passenger was thrown out of the car into the river and drowned; another landed on the shore and suffered multiple injuries; and the driver remained trapped inside the vehicle with the steering wheel jammed against his chest; he also had other serious injuries. Several search and rescue techniques were simultaneously employed in this exercise.
- A dog specially trained to locate drowning victims was brought in from the Ciudad Real provincial fire service to locate the drowned passenger.
- A water rescue team, also from Ciudad Real, recovered the body from the river, following its location by the dog.
- A medical transport helicopter was employed to recieve the critically injured passenger from the shore and airlift him to a hospital.
- The driver was extricated from the vehicle. Rescuers used multiple tools and specific techniques for liberating the steering column. The driver was stabilized and taken to the base of the bridge for removal.
- The driver was taken from the shore up to the bridge for transport; rescuers employed technical rescue techniques. The rescuer controlling the ascent of the victim was one of the participants in the wind turbine rescue workshop exercise the previous afternoon.
The localization of this exercise attracted hundreds of spectators, most notably tourists from several countries visiting the historic city. Various agencies participated in this exercise, necessitating a multiple incident command structure. These participants included the Toledo municipal fire brigade, Toledo provincial fire service, Ciudad Real provincial fire service, Toledo municipal ambulance service, Toledo municipal civil defence group, Toledo municipal police, National Guardia Civil police, and the 112 regional emergency coordination entities.
This type of exercise, whether it be part of a fire service congress, an instructor conference, or a local fire department training action, is extremely worthwhile. It gives numerous participants from various agencies the opportunity to interact in a controlled environment and experience how major incidents can be handled when there is a real-life emergency situation calling for cooperation and coordination.
George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters’ Association (ASELF).