Inside Heavy-1: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's technical rescue apparatus
The behemoth apparatus has been used during significant events to help save lives
In 2018, a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University was being assembled and placed into position across an eight-lane highway. Without warning, the Miami, Florida-area bridge collapsed. Six people, including a university student, were killed; 10 people were injured, many seriously; and eight vehicles were crushed underneath the collapsed bridge.
Crews from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue were called to the scene, including those assigned to the Heavy Rescue. Lt. Jairo Rodriguez, a 28-year veteran with the department, had just put Heavy-1, the department's new heavy wrecker, into service. It was the technical rescue apparatus' first call.
"We were finishing training to get the first group of people certified to be able to operate the truck," Rodriguez recalled. "The truck wasn't at a station; it wasn't in service yet. We were certifying the last group and broke for lunch when the call came in."
As soon as the call came through, Rodriguez jumped in the truck and drove it to the scene.
"In that bridge collapse, we weren't able to make any saves, because everybody that was trapped unfortunately passed," he said. "But, with that truck, we were able to remove all of the bodies from the wreckage. We removed the concrete and the vehicles from under the bridge."
The unit, which has now been in service for two years, is the only one of its kind available in the state of Florida. The behemoth apparatus has helped save lives during several significant events since its first call.
Training and operating the wrecker
In addition to his lieutenant position, Rodriguez serves as a rescue team manager for FEMA's Florida Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue team. He's also a FEMA structural collapse instructor and has been deployed to various catastrophes, both nationally and internationally. He's also a certified paramedic, marine firefighter and technical rescue technician.
Rodriguez developed the department's heavy rescue rotator training program. Operating the apparatus, he explained, is an art form.
"We treat it as a surgeon views his knife. We treat this piece of apparatus as a surgical tool to remove heavy equipment from around a limb or body that may be in danger," he said.
To be eligible to apply to work on the Heavy-1, a member must:
- Be a firefighter for at least six years;
- Become a technical rescue technician, which requires over 600 hours of training to get certified;
- Work on a technical rescue unit once certified as a technical rescue technician;
- Become a heavy rescue truck technician; and
- Apply to work for a heavy rescue truck.
With proper training and experience, it may take anywhere from 10 to 15 years for a firefighter to be able to work on a heavy rescue truck, Rodriguez said.
"Once you become a heavy rescue truck technician, then you have the ability to apply to be able to work on this rotator wrecker that we have," Rodriguez said.
Fourteen people were initially trained in the program. The department now has some relief personnel who are also trained, but they're not on the truck on a regular basis. Twelve people work on it regularly now, Rodriguez said.
The apparatus is a county resource that's available to anyone in the tri-county area, which includes Broward, Palm Beach and Dade counties.
Speccing the Heavy-1
Aside from Miami-Dade, there's currently only two fire departments in the country that operate with a specialized heavy rescue: the Los Angeles County Fire Department and Los Angeles City Fire Department.
"I took the LA County certification class for their rotator, which is a long class," Rodriguez said. "We got a lot of great information from them and there was no reason to reinvent the wheel. We took what they were doing, applied some things and added other things that were more specific to our area."
The apparatus has everything that a normal rotator has, Rodriguez said. It includes a 60-ton boom, which is the main arm on the top. It also has an under lift, which is the second boom in the back. The one that falls out like an elbow, he said, is a 50-ton boom.
"We wanted to make sure that it was versatile to be able to lift from the rear, lift from the top, and have the minimum capacity of 60 tons from the top and 50 tons from the back," he said.
The reason for the boom in the back, he said, is so operators can push, pull and lift with it. "It's basically like a huge jack to be able to lift heavy equipment or heavy trucks."
Heavy-1 also has five winches – two deploy off the tip of the boom, two deploy at the middle of the boom, and one deploys at the bottom at the base. "That allows us to be able to capture weight from any angle from the front, side, back or any angle to either lift or stabilize heavy loads," Rodriguez said.
Each winch, he added, is rated at different capabilities – depending on what they're lifting: "We also use it for structural collapse for stabilization of walls or movement of debris."
It also has shackles or pulleys in different areas, which turn out to be change-of-direction points. "We run a line one way to change the direction so that we can change the angle to pull in different directions or stabilize,” Rodriguez noted. “Our outriggers have shackles and then point of connection, where we can put pulleys there to change the direction of how we run our winch."
This process, he said, is very different from the application towing industries use: "The towing industry doesn't really use change of directions. They just lift, pull and drag."
The department connected with towing industry professionals to help spec out their own wrecker. "They helped us figure out what we need and what works," Rodriguez said. "In understanding how they use it, we were able to pick and choose what we needed that was applicable to our work."
However, at the start, that relationship between the department and private towing industry professionals did not start out on solid ground.
A snag with private towing industry professionals
While the department was looking into options of getting their own wrecker, personnel faced backlash from the private towing industry.
"The private industry felt threatened," Rodriguez said.
The idea for the truck came about because the department had various calls involving heavy machinery. And in some of the calls, the department noticed they had problems with assets they needed to move, lift or open up to extricate trapped victims.
"When we had the lack of equipment, we would have to call the private industry," Rodriguez explained. "But there was always a tremendous delay in getting those assets to the fire scene, because they have a business, and they were busy doing other things."
This put the department in a difficult situation, he described: "We have life at stake. This is an emergency. It would sometimes take anywhere from three to four hours for the private industry to get on scene. We were losing a lot of lives, and we weren't rescuing as many."
The department had multiple meetings with towing industry professionals – many that ended in more controversy and resistance, Rodriguez shared, adding, "We don't pretend to do what they do. We don't pretend to be tow truck drivers or recovery professionals. We're rescue."
Eventually, the department was able to relay their message to the private industry and tow truck companies.
"We helped them understand our goal and how we wouldn't be jeopardizing their line of work,” Rodriguez said. “We were there to complement them, not to take over. We only use our apparatus to move, lift or remove something that's endangering someone's life, or when safety is a concern. We're not there to tow or recover any piece of equipment."
Rodriguez formed alliances with towing and recovery professionals, and they're included in department trainings: "I want to make sure that they understand that we're not here to do their job. We train with them so that they know where we're coming from, what we do, what's important to us and vice versa."
The department uses the apparatus about three to five times a month, Rodriguez said: "They are high-risk, high-reward, low-frequency type calls."
Aside from technical rescues, the department also uses it for fires. For example, crews used it during a warehouse fire that had several heavy pallets inside.
"We put the fire out, but there were a lot of deep-seated fires that we couldn't get to unless we moved a lot of these heavy pallets out of the way," Rodriguez said. "The only way to do it was to grab a winch from the rotator, do a change of direction to one of the outriggers, and then a firefighter on air would take it into the fire, connect a chain to the pallet and then we'd pull the pallets out of the warehouse."
One of the most memorable calls, he said, involved a driver who was trapped in his vehicle after it became wrapped around a tree on the driver's side.
"There were surgeons on scene getting ready to amputate this guy's legs," he recalled. "The technical rescue teams that were on scene for an hour couldn't get the guy out. I went out there with the wrecker and met with the trauma surgeons. I told them, 'Give me 15 minutes. I'll remove the car from the tree and then we can reevaluate.'"
Crews removed the car from the tree, allowing them to open the car to save the victim's legs. "Later, that guy sent me a picture of him standing up … thanking us for saving his life."
The intimidation factor and initial resistance to the wrecker – both from the outside as well as internally – has faded over the years. Members with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, Rodriguez said, have fully embraced the specialized apparatus and can't see life without it now.
"It has definitely done its work and it's definitely worth it."
Editor’s note: Does your department have a unique apparatus? Email email@example.com and we’ll consider it for a feature story.