Responders take search and rescue course

Preparing for the worst

Thirty-five firefighters and police attacked concrete structures Tuesday to save the dummies of a baby and two adults trapped underneath.

The test was the culmination of a weeklong class on rescue and recovery after a structural collapse.

"It's been long," said Kevin Stokes, a firefighter for Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue. "We've pretty much done a couple of weeks' worth of training in a few days."

Augusta's group, Task Force 3, is one of seven in Georgia, according to Instructor Mike Thorn. Firefighters from Augusta, Fort Gordon and Columbia, Washington and Cobb counties and police from Richmond County Sheriff's Office volunteered for the class.

Georgia teams began assembling in 2002 when the state questioned whether it was prepared for an incident similar to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The program, led by Georgia Search and Rescue, is the result of a $1.275 million grant, according to Augusta Fire Special Operations Chief Wayne Taylor. It supplied the task force with a truck and equipment, such as on-board generators, saws, cameras, jackhammers and fans.

On Tuesday, crews worked at both ends of what resembled a concrete obstacle course, moving and drilling through concrete slabs weighing more than 1,000 pounds. Both crews worked toward a supposed victim who could be seen trapped in a vehicle in the middle of the rubble. What they did not see was the dummy of a baby trapped in the debris along the way.

Another crew worked to build beams and structures to stabilize a shaky building and retrieve a dummy body inside.

"I'm not going to lie, it's hard stuff," said Wendy Wohlust, a Cobb County firefighter. "But people's lives are relying on us."

The structural collapse class is the fourth part of a program that teaches rope rescue, confined space and trench rescue.

Thorn expects the Augusta crew to be called out frequently, especially to disasters that strike the Atlantic Coast.

Richmond County sheriff's Deputy Gabriel Garner chose to enroll in the class after he was sent to help with efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Although he was sent for police support, not rescue, Garner said the training would have been helpful.

Three Georgia crews were called to use their structural collapse skills during the June 2009 partial collapse of a six-story Atlanta parking deck.

"We told (the trainees) you don't know when you'll get called," Thorn said. "It could be today or 10 years from now."

The testing lasted about four hours and resulted in the safe removal of three dummies.

"That was probably one of the strongest teams we've ever taught," Thorn said at the conclusion of the course.

Another class of 35 students will begin training in October and complete Task Force 3.

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