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Case study: Lessons from a freak-accident rescue

A well-planned and executed rescue effort played a large role in the victim's 'lucky' outcome to a bad situation

Luck in the fire service has been best described as when opportunity meets training and preparation with the job being completed flawlessly. This month's Tip of the Spear, we are going back to Monday, March 6, 2006. The location is Atlanta.

The weather that day was bright and sunny with very few clouds in the sky. The temperature would reach nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind speed was just about 0 mph all day. What a picture-perfect, beautiful mid-winter day in the new South.

The shift started off quite tame. But at about 10 a.m. an alarm sounded for an unknown substance (white powder) in the State Capital building.

The alarm would turn out to be a good-intent call with no service needed beyond perimeter control and sample testing of the suspect white powder. Of course, the on-scene companies oversaw the evacuation of the Capital to ensure that no one inhaled the unidentified suspicious white dust. 

While I was checking in at the command post, the Georgia State Fire Marshal (Chief Alan Shuman) arrived. I updated him about the details of our progress to resolve this hazardous materials alarm.

The timing couldn't have worked out any better. As Chief Shuman gave the Governor "all clear, under control" by phone, the two of us caught up and briefly talked about some recent arson-related issues in the city. A few minutes into the discussion, a single-engine alarm was dispatched that caught our interest.

The call
Engine 29 was dispatched "for the front porch that has collapsed with a person trapped, time out 10:59 hours." Without any details about the collapse, Chief Shuman and I went back to discussing the arson issues. As Engine 29's company officer called in his brief initial report, it was obvious that this was going to be a complicated rescue.

The initial incident commander described that a concrete front porch had collapsed into the basement of a home with a man trapped under a large amount of debris. He went on to say the man's wife had entered the collapse zone to assist her husband and was in imminent danger. The next radio transmission was a call for a significant amount of help in the likes of a Georgia Search & Rescue Task Force (GSAR). 

The trapped man was making the final preparations to take his wife on a family vacation. As he walked out his front door to load their vehicle for travel, the approximate 10- by 12-foot front porch collapsed into a void space below. 

The empty hole was left under the porch area during construction at the same depth of the finished basement and footers. That's right, all of the supporting dirt had been removed from under this front entrance way. The only structural components that supported the concrete slab that made up the porch stoop were ½-inch steel re-enforcement rods. Over many years, the steel rusted and corroded, allowing the porch assembly to go crashing about 20 feet into the void space underneath.

Rescue plan
It took everyone a minute or two to fully understand the level of danger that this situation posed, as well as how this accident occurred.

The homeowner was no longer headed on vacation, but was trapped under a large amount of debris with multiple systemic traumatic injuries. Once his wife realized what happened, she called for Atlanta Fire-Rescue's help and entered the deep hole to assist the unconscious and unresponsive man. 

When the size-up was completed and the incident action plan developed, the first step was to remove the unharmed female. The technical rescue members were able to put hands on the uninjured wife and remove her over a ladder that was placed into the collapse zone without entering the collapse area. 

The next step was to stabilize the dangling concrete slabs and soil that surrounded the victim. While scene stabilization got under way, the engine and truck company members performed the necessary support functions for a cave-in response, such as ventilation and air monitoring the opening to determine if it would be safe for the rescuers to make entry. 

The fire-rescue responders ensured that the building's water was shut off. This was to prevent water from leaking into this already compromised collapse zone, causing a secondary collapse. Next, ground ladders were placed in the opening to help the technical rescue members again access and remove the patient from the pit.

The ground ladders helped stabilize this area for the victim. They served as a makeshift trench box to minimize further harm to the trapped man as the team secured the caved-in area. 

To be clear, this was not an active construction site. There was no digging or heavy construction equipment of any kind when the cave-in occurred. Stabilization consisted mostly securing the dangling overhead concrete slabs and the earthen walls of the pit with pneumatic shores and pre-constructed strong-backed plywood sheeting. 

The GSAR team entered the hazard area and immediately provided advanced life support protocols to the injured man to control the profuse bleeding and to maintain a paten airway. 

Many elements of the emergency-response system were responsible for saving a human life that day, including the communications centers, police who provide scene control, a private EMS service that dispatched an advanced life support ambulance, an aero-ambulance (helicopter) that was summoned and finally the critical care givers at the hospital. 

Tips of the spear
Several members distinguish themselves above and beyond the call of duty at this alarm, earning their Tip of the Spear acknowledgement. Capt. Steven Woodworth and Lt. Jason Whitby were the rescuers who located and removed the lifeless body. These two dedicated fire-rescue officers were an intricate part of GSAR 8 of Atlanta. In fact, both were working extra that day, conducting GSAR training when this call was dispatched.

Once the victim was packaged and removed for transport, the next step was to provide critical advanced life support care. Once removed from the hazard zone, the patient's bleeding increased remarkably. The next Tip of the Spear goes to Lt. Jimmy Gittens, who on this day was acting as the citywide paramedic supervisor.

Lt. Gittens helped the on-scene medics start two IV lines to replace the tremendous amount of blood being lost. Further, there was a great degree of difficulty intubating this critical patient. In just a few seconds, the Lt. Gittens had the breathing tube properly placed and delivering oxygen. Finally, he took firm control and reminded all of us that this was a "load and go" patient. In the next few seconds, our patient was placed in a waiting ambulance helicopter.

Of notable interest, was that a mature (35 foot or so) conifer tree at the end of this cul-de-sac had to be removed to establish a safe landing zone for the aero-ambulance. The remaining Atlanta firefighters make quick work out of falling this large tree. In fact, once on the ground, they cut the tree into manageable fireplace sized logs and neatly stacked the fresh cut wood and limbs out of the way of vehicle traffic. The members swept the area clean of all sawdust and debris. 

Because of these firefighters' effort, the helicopter landed and took-off without problem. I expected to get complaints about removing such a beautiful, healthy tree, but I never heard a negative word from this community about it.

Exceptional community service
The final Tip of the Spear goes to Capt. Byron Kennedy, who was assigned to the Office of the Fire Chief as the public information and community relations officer. Very early into this event, it was obvious that the victim's wife was physiologically traumatized by what had happened. 

Capt. Kennedy took the responsibility to be the customer liaison and advocate for this young lady, helping her in anyway that he could. As the helicopter headed off, Kennedy ensured that we cleaned up the interior of the home. 

Most of the operations were conducted inside the victim's home as well as providing the final ALS ground medical treatment. The blood and bandages cleanup was a daunting task, but had to be tackled before significant damage occurred to this home. Next, Capt. Kennedy helped the lady secure her home as best she could, than drove her to the hospital. Capt. Kennedy stayed with the lady until her husband finished surgery and was placed into a hospital room.

Over the next few weeks, Capt. Kennedy took back and forth between home and hospital as she requested, as well as help with any family issue that he could.

March 6, 2006 was a day of heroism and professionalism for the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. For one family, it was both a tragic day and a lucky day.

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