Rescue Is Not Always Technical


The chief of the Fayetteville (GA) Fire Department directed that the 2008 training calendar include a rescue awareness training program for all members. The goal was to identify the available resources for technical rescue incidents, such as high angle, confined space, trench, and structural collapse. Although several members had attended various rescue training programs and had varying levels of experience, the department’s technical rescue equipment was limited. The need for such service was relatively low and simply did not justify major budget expenditures for a fully equipped rescue unit. The department needed to identify its capabilities and limitations while maintaining an awareness of what its members could safely and effectively accomplish.

The program first identified the jurisdiction’s needs. An area survey combined with a review of previous calls showed a low frequency of calls requiring technical rescue disciplines. The department then developed a training program that identified the available state and local technical rescue resources and the proper method for contacting them.

The second objective of the training program was to train all members for operations that the department could safely implement on its own in the event of a technical rescue incident. The foresight of this program would bear fruit sooner than anyone realized.


On April 22, 2009, the Fayette County 911 center received a call reporting a person trapped in a hole. At 0734 hours, an engine and a medic unit were dispatched initially to the Fayetteville address. As additional information became available, the assignment was upgraded to include a battalion chief, an engine company, a light duty rescue, a quint, and a squad unit to provide additional staffing.

On arrival, units found an approximately 30-year-old female at the bottom of a 15-foot-deep hole. The victim appeared uninjured, was able to move all extremities, and had no medical complaints. The hole’s diameter was approximately 24 inches at the top and up to 36 inches at the bottom. The smooth and symmetrical sides of the hole at the bottom indicated that the space appeared to be an entrance to a bored well, which had been covered over at some point.

The victim was standing on soft dirt and holding on to a piece of rebar that was embedded into the soil (photo 1). The battalion chief assumed command and immediately began sizing up the situation based on input from all on-scene personnel.

(1) Photos by author.

Numerous critical factors were identified and prioritized. The first objective was to contact the necessary resources that might be needed should the incident escalate. The total depth of the well was not known, and the stability of the type C soil on which the victim stood could not be determined. The walls of the space were moist and showed no signs of cracks. There were no fissures showing in or around the hole. There was a potential for secondary collapse. The primary concern was that a secondary collapse at the bottom of the hole would bury the victim or allow her to fall deeper into the well. It is not uncommon for some of these wells to be as much as 50 feet deep.

The space leading to the top of the well was not straight. The top four- or five-foot segment of the space was vertical, the middle section had an angle, and then the space became vertical again down to the bottom of the hole. The angle of the hole was actually enough that the top of the well where the victim was located was approximately four to five feet under the building (photo 2).


The space presented trench and confined space rescue hazards. Because of the potential for the incident to escalate, dispatch contacted the Georgia Search and Rescue (GSAR) program and requested that it respond its nearest heavy rescue unit. The Clayton County Fire Department responded with GSAR 5 and support staff, which provided personnel with more advanced training and the needed equipment should the incident escalate. After sizing up the scene, the incident commander, the operations officer, and the members all felt that this incident could be handled safely by the personnel on-scene. At the very least, they could prevent the incident from escalating.

Command’s first objective was to establish a command system to safely and effectively manage the information in a timely manner and designated an Operations officer. Company officers would report to Operations; crews in staging would report to Command. This would prevent Command from being overwhelmed as the incident progressed.

Scene control was also established; numerous well-intentioned personnel were gathering around the site, which increased the potential for secondary collapse. The engine company, using the plywood pads it carried to protect its high-pressure air bags, placed ground pads around the edge of the hole. Although the pads were not designed for trench incidents, they would prove just as effective (photo 3).


Limiting the number of personnel around the site and placing the pads would reduce the ground pressure of personnel working near the hole and reduce the potential for secondary collapse. This allowed personnel to safely get close enough to the hole to lower an atmospheric monitoring device, which was lowered near the head of the victim. The victim had been in the space for approximately one hour; the monitor indicated the atmosphere still contained 20.9 percent oxygen and registered zero percent for flammable gases and carbon monoxide.

The two engine company crews leaned a ladder against the building over the hole, anchoring a pulley to one of the rungs. They passed a ½-inch kernmantle life safety rope through the pulley and tied a figure-eight knot at the end of the rope. This would only create a 1:1 mechanical advantage system, but considering the available on-scene personnel and the victim’s size, this would prove more than ample to stabilize and remove the victim. After attaching a ladder belt to the rope, members lowered it into the hole. They then instructed the victim on how to put the belt on around her chest. This line was initially used to secure the victim and prevent her from falling deeper into the well.

Personnel also lowered a second line through the pulley with a double-loop figure-eight knot at the end into the space and instructed the victim how to place her legs through the loops. This line was also rigged to provide a 1:1 mechanical advantage (photo 4).


Members slowly raised the victim, but she became caught on the piece of rebar on which she had been hanging. They then lowered her back slightly, turned her 180º, and raised her slowly out of the space. They placed her on a stretcher and transported her to a local hospital as a precautionary measure (photo 5).




A critique of the incident revealed some lessons learned and reinforced. The incident presented numerous confined space and trench rescue hazards. Although personnel were not trained to the confined space technician level, they were able to resolve the incident safely and effectively using basic firefighting skills. The department’s training program had focused on methods for conducting confined-space rescues without placing personnel in the space.

The trench rescue program had addressed identifying hazards and then encouraging personnel to use some ingenuity and initiative in dealing with situations, as demonstrated by their placement of plywood ground pads. Personnel used the equipment they had available to effect a rescue while maintaining the safety of the victim and firefighters.

A command system had been established early in the incident. Technical incidents often require decreasing the span of control to ensure timeliness of information flow. Command remained focused on objectives and addressing critical factors. The entire incident was handled from dispatch to victim transport in 19 minutes. The victim was successfully extricated prior to the arrival of GSAR 5. This can be attributed to three main factors: training, situational awareness, and competence.

All personnel within the Fayetteville Fire Department had attended training to recognize and deal with similar situations. Members are trained on basic skills and encouraged to use judgment and initiative. Leaders must encourage this every day, not just on the day of an incident. Once this is accomplished, firefighters will have the skills they need to maintain situational awareness.

A review of the near-miss Web site ( reveals that lack of situational awareness is the number one factor in near-miss reporting. Training in hazard recognition and, most importantly, encouraging personnel to exercise judgment and initiative will help firefighters maintain good situational awareness. You gain competence only through continuous training. The will to win can only be effective when combined with the willingness to prepare.


The fire service has now and will continue to have a need for technical rescue teams. Firefighters must realize that basic firefighting skills are often all that are needed to safely conclude or stabilize an incident. Many basic skills, in conjunction with technical discipline, can have a positive impact on an incident. Firefighters must continuously train on these basic skills. Command officers must be leaders and develop team work every day.

STEVEN WOODWORTH is a battalion chief with the Atlanta (GA) Fire Department, assigned to the Third Battalion, and a captain with the Fayetteville (GA) Fire Department, assigned to training. Woodworth is an adjunct instructor for the Georgia Fire Academy; an FDIC H.O.T. instructor; and an instructor with SAFE-IR Inc., a training company specializing in thermal imaging training.

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