Mother’s Day Trench Rescue at the Beach

Article and photos by Michael Gurr

(1) The first-due engine responds, attempting early stabilization.

On Sunday May 8, 2011, Pompano Beach (FL) Fire Rescue communications dispatch center (CDC) received a call at 1850 hours from ocean lifeguards for a man possibly trapped under the sand. This call initially was coded out as an “ engine assist” only. On hearing this, I immediately upgraded the call and had an advanced life support (ALS) medical unit and our squad assigned to the call. Ocean lifeguards confirmed a male trapped several feet down in the sand. I then requested fire dispatch to notify a technical rescue team (TRT) to respond. What had been a relatively quiet holiday shift suddenly turned into a call that would be talked about for years to come.  

As I was driving toward the call, several things were going through my mind. One was that my department was trained only in trench rescue awareness, so I knew we could not make entry. We were trained approximately 10 years ago through the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) on a grant for trench and confined space rescue. I remembered that the quality of the soil in South Florida was the worst grade concerning trench rescue. Beach sand was possibly the worst-case scenario. We also had very limited supplies and equipment for this type of operation.




(4) Rescuers provide an SCBA mask to the victim.

When I arrived 10 minutes later, I found ocean lifeguards, one engine, and the medical unit working toward the shoreline of the beach. When I got closer, I could not believe what I saw. Approximately five feet down in a hole was the top of the victim’s head. The only part of his body sticking above the floor of the trench was his head and neck. I reconfirmed with fire dispatch that we had a true trench rescue incident and confirmed that a TRT was on its way.
I assumed command and requested a tactical communications channel. The ocean lifeguards did a great job providing initial protection for the victim; they placed two backboards vertically into the hole to try and shore up the walls. They also had provided oxygen for the victim through a non-rebreather mask. The first-due engine and medical unit also put two additional backboards in place and checked on the victim’s status for injuries. We were starting to attract a large crowd of onlookers. We needed the police to respond for crowd control and scene security. The victim was a 19-year-old male from the Austrian swim team. The team was in Pompano Beach training and had the day off. Somehow, someone thought it would be fun to dig a big hole in the sand. Later, after the hole was dug, the victim jumped back in, thus causing the collapse and entrapment.

While the TRT was responding, we deployed our rapid intervention team airway bag. I wanted the victim’s face protected from the sand in case of any further collapse. We put the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) mask on his face; the eight-foot air hose was just long enough so we could rest the air bottle just past the lip of the trench. Several small collapses of sand come down on the victim during the placement of shoring; I believe the SCBA mask made things much easier on the victim.



(6) The Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Rescue TRT provided specialized equipment.

(7) Rescuers attempt to access the victim.


(9) Night sets in.

Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Rescue was the responding TRT agency. It brought a tractor trailer full of specialized confined space and trench rescue equipment. As TRT assumed the role of victim extrication, the Pompano units became support and stood by for patient treatment and transport. It is always difficult for your members when another agency comes in to assist on calls like this. Some of your people will always think that your agency could have done the job or that they almost had the victim out. But those with experience and time on the job know this is not the case.
Pompano Beach paramedics were able to start an IV on the victim and administered fluids to help keep the victim hydrated. As the call went on, we were concerned with hypothermia because the victim was wearing only a bathing suit (no shirt), the sand was wet, and the temperature was cooling as the sun started to set. We also thought about the potential of crushing injuries because of the weight of the sand on top of the victim’s body.
Progress was slow; after an hour of digging with little change, I became concerned that this outcome might not be a positive one. The TRT battalion chief was requesting more equipment; all this took time. The normal finforms (shoring) were too large for the hole; alternative methods were needed. Public works was called to respond with a backhoe and a vacuum truck; we were given a 30 to 40-minute estimated time of arrival. The sun’s setting and our location 500 feet off the road created the need for scene lighting. Also, most of the on-scene crews had been working hard for at least an hour with little or no rehab. 

Just as we neared the two-hour mark, we finally made some progress and were able to free the victim from the bottom of the trench. I was ecstatic because we were running out of ideas of how to free him. He was alive and possibly in mild shock but otherwise had no noticeable injuries. He was transported to the nearest trauma center and was released against medical authority (AMA) the next day. If the victim was not young, and in good health  and great shape (a professional swimmer), he probably would have succumbed to this traumatic accident.


(10) Finally, the victim is free. 

·  Personnel. You can never have too many firefighters on scene. We had 35 firefighters, eight ocean lifeguards, six police officers, one public information officer, and medical directors from both fire departments. Every person on scene was working at one point; most went above and beyond to save this young man’s life. Having all this personnel on scene is great, if it is controlled.
·  Command and Control by the incident commander(IC) is crucial at any large incident. This call started off like any other but kicked into high gear quickly, and I had trouble keeping up with it. It is very difficult for the IC to stay ahead on calls like this. It was difficult trying to put the action plan together, operate in a safe mode, communicate with outside agencies as they respond, and have effective accountability and control. Company officers must also be disciplined and have a tight reign on their crews. This helps control freelancing and unsafe operations.
·  Most communication was face to face and not over the radio. We had a good number of personnel working very closely, and feedback became an issue. Strong winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean also didn’t help. Although face-to-face communications made things quicker and easier, I believe firefighters are more comfortable with radio communications. It always amazes me how firefighters become hard of hearing the closer they are to the action. They get so fixated and focused on victim rescue that they close everything else out. Some people had to be told more than once to move back from the trench lip. Others were reluctant to pass off their tools and take a break, thinking they were almost there and the victim would soon be free.
·  Incident command zones (hot, warm, and cold)were established. We had a few things to contend with being 500 feet off a major thoroughfare. We called for the police to keep by-standers and news crews back approximately 300 feet. We had no natural or man-made barriers to aid us in putting up scene tape/fire line tape. Access to the beach area was very limited. All fire units had to park far away because there was only a very small shoulder to park on along a two-lane roadway. We then had to carry all the rescue and trench equipment through the hotel pool and patio areas before making our way to the sand. Once we reached the sand, we used several beach ATVs and our own Polaris Ranger 6 X 6 AWD vehicle to transport much of the lumber and trench rescue equipment down to the staging area. 
·  Lighting became an issue as the sun started to set. Our squad has telescopic lighting, but two large hotels and 500 feet of sand put that idea to rest. Our newer trucks are set up with scene lighting on portable tripods, but the generators are all permanently mounted and are not portable. I had to send a crew back to our main station to take an older Honda generator off a spare rig and bring it to the scene. In the meantime, two of our driver engineers went through all the fire apparatus on scene and made about a 350-foot extension cord, which we plugged into an end unit apartment on the ground floor of one of the hotels. This powered one large scene light, which managed to do the job effectively. We had the ocean lifeguard’s truck headlights, if needed, plus numerous hand lights standing by if all the other options failed.
These are just some of my personal observations. This article was not written from a TRT perspective but from the point of view of a company officer who upgrades to battalion chief from time to time. I thought this was a very unusual call and wanted to share it with others who could possibly learn from it or even prepare for it. I have spent many hours contemplating tactical decisions I would make on high-rise fires, train wrecks, hazmat calls, plane crashes, warehouse fires, and bus crashes, but I never thought I would come across a 19-year-old kid buried up to his neck in sand five feet below grade on the beach! I welcome any constructive criticism or suggestions about this call. You can reach me at 
Michael Gurr is a lieutenant-paramedic for Pompano Beach (FL) Fire Rescue. He has served 21 years as a career firefighter and is an instructor II at the Coral Springs Fire Academy. He is also the South Florida Regional coordinator for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters.

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