Manassas Journal Messenger | Firefighters train for tight spots

Firefighters checked each other’s gear for safety before they went down in the hole.

Climbing gear, head sets, breathing apparatuses, radio throat mics, hard hats and knee and elbow guards all had to be in place and in working order before they began their confined-space rescue training exercise.

With everything set, three members of the Dale City Volunteer Fire Department’s special operations team squeezed through a manhole on Noble Pond Way just off Prince William Parkway on Sunday to rescue a trapped “patient.”

Crews above ground lowered the three into the hole with ropes and carabiners rigged to a 10-foot metal tripod.

The team in the hole had to asses the patient, a 170-pound dummy, for “breathing and pulse,” said Capt. Jeremy McPike of Station 10.

They also had to get the patient into an oxygen mask and a harness attached to a modified back-board — all in an underground storm water drainage pipe.

Feeling trapped is an issue even though the team members know the feeling is going to hit them, said Karl Ashley, one of the firefighters who went into the hole.

“The hardest part is getting over your claustrophobia and not being able to see,” the 33-year-old Ashley said.

Working around all the equipment in a tight space is also problematic. There is a “frustration” in not being able to move freely, Ashley said.

“You’re trying to work on the patient. You’re hunched over,” he said.

“You’ve got to realize you’ve got all these lines, so you’re having to drag these lines around and not get them hooked down there,” said Ashley, who works for Lockheed Martin when he’s not volunteering to climb into manholes.

The Dale City Volunteer Fire Department officers who ran the exercise chose the manhole because of the extremely restricted space.

In a real-world situation, the rescue team might be working in a collapsed ditch on a construction site, or a room with one door, said Lt. Mike Spencer.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration dictates that the special operations team members practice at least once a year to make sure their equipment is safe, and the team might not test their skills and gear on a true emergency once in a given year, Spencer said.

“It’s one of the rarest things we do,” he said.

Ramsey Reed, another of the team members who went into the hole, said the unknown worried her the most.

“Just not knowing what’s down there and having to be aware of the whole situation and all the hazards you might be involved in,” said the 33-year-old Ramsey, who will start teaching science at Stonewall Jackson High School in the fall.

The firefighters got the patient out of the hole in about 20 minutes.

“It feels awesome to get out of there,”Ashley said as he doffed his gear at the completion of the exercise.

Staff writer Keith Walker can be reached at (703) 878-8063.

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