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Are fire departments ready for trench rescue?

When it comes to trench rescue, you are either ready for success or ripe for tragedy; here’s what it takes to be ready


Never jump into a trench without a shoring system and presume that everything is going to be OK.

Updated Aug. 16, 2017

Trench rescue is one of the most challenging rescue events that emergency responders face today. On the risk and frequency scales, trench events peak the scales in both. In fact, trench events have a mortality rate 2.5 times greater than all other construction-related events.

Open trenches exist every day across America and compliance with OSHA requirements continues to be a major challenge for the construction industry.

Then add that documented dynamic collapses have occurred in trenches less than 4 feet deep, and you can see the magnitude and lethality of trench rescues – and we haven’t even touched on the massive cost and quantity of resources required for a safe and efficient trench rescue.

Like everything in life, there are right ways and wrong ways to do things. The same applies to trench rescue. There are safe and efficient ways to attack a trench rescue. Unfortunately, many trench events are confronted with haphazard and often lethal approaches.

I embrace the reality that we may have to put our lives on the line to save the life of another. However, I passionately believe that a decision, reaction or course of action that intentionally endangers your own life or the lives of your crew should only be made with great regard and understanding of what you are about to do.

There is nothing worse than an emergency responder who commits a seemingly heroic act based on either a lack of understanding of the hazards or complete indifference to them.

So, what does all this mean? It means we fall into one of two categories. We are either diligently working to make sure that we are ready for the next trench event. Or we are not diligently working at it and are ripe for the next tragedy.

Here are the four components of being ready.

1. Personnel

Trench requires personnel trained to NFPA 1006 Trench Level I and Level II. Why both? Trenches are not clones, and once they collapse they present challenges that can quickly surpass Level I training.

Level II training includes deep trenches and intersecting trenches as well as more advanced components for high directional anchors and lifting and rigging operations. Level I practitioners can be excellent practitioners, but Level II personnel may make more informed technical and tactical decisions.

Additionally, trench rescue is manpower intensive. If you do not have enough intrinsic assets, then you have mutual aid agreements with additional trench rescuers.

2. Training

NFPA 1006 requires annual scenario-based training for all certified personnel that incorporates all of the qualifications identified in the certification standard. This is a minimum.

Team members must be in the books, journals and, most importantly, out in the field practicing the trade. Expose yourself to outside perspectives including industry practices.

This means we must pursue other schools of thought that stretch us and keep us sharp and current. This also means that you stop at every open trench that you can and strike up a dialogue with the industry people working the trench.

As you develop your training formulas, be careful. Just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t make it a good practice. The same goes for instructional groups and instructors. Make sure your training is compliant with national and local standards and is rescue based.

3. Equipment

I know there are funding and resource challenges, but if you are not equipped with struts (particularly pneumatic or hydraulic), you are already behind the rescue curve. Timber-based shoring as well as shoring that can only be pressurized from inside of the trench is inherently slower and more dangerous than the alternative.

A municipal vacuum trucks is another imperative asset. When victims are buried through soil collapse, large quantities of soil must be moved in an incredibly compressed time frame. This is radically slower and less efficient when performed by hand digging.

Bridging, slides, atmospheric monitors, bipods, monopods, high-angle equipment, and low-pressure trench bags are some additional pieces of equipment that are foundational pieces of a capable and ready trench team.

4. Technical points

There are many ways to approach trench rescue and it’s often the subject of passionate debate. I believe in fast application of sound engineering fundamentals.

That means placing ground pads and bridge around the trench in less than five minutes. That means the bridging and ground pads are organized as a template that helps us lay out perpendicular trench panels without gaps.

That means we shore trenches from the outside and use shoring data for Class C trenches to ensure we aren’t under engineered. That means we have ladders and egress points in place in every working zone.

What it never means is that we jump into a trench without a shoring system and presume that everything is going to be OK. What it never means is that we let our panels lay as they might and disregard angles and backfilling.

With that, here are four components of being ripe for tragedy at a trench rescue.

1. Personnel

Every jurisdiction has a realistic possibility of a trench event. Yet not every fire department has trained and certified trench personnel. At a minimum, organizations that rely solely on outside support or mutual aid for a trench response, should be trained and certified in trench awareness.

When emergency responders are not fully aware of the inherent risks, they draw upon what they think they know or their instincts when the trench event occurs. Protect your personnel and understanding of trench hazards.

The other side of this coin is an organization may have some trained personnel, but not enough of them. To overcome this, conduct in-service training to get internal personnel at least able to perform support functions. This is not as ideal as fully certifying and training personnel, but it is far better than accepting a lack of preparedness.

2. Training

Trench training requires a lot of logistics, planning and resources. Classroom refreshers and strictly using trench simulators is not adequate. Dynamic trenches should be used with some regularity and we must get dirty.

Additionally, trench training cannot just be an annual event. A comprehensive curriculum throughout the year that uses classroom sessions, equipment reviews and bay drills are all building block sessions. If this is not your trench-training environment, you are ripe.

3. Equipment

Very few organizations are truly equipped for a significant trench event. Know your limitations and have a plan.

If your organization is underequipped but is still under the presumption that an effective trench rescue is going to take place, take a step back and look at it from a more analytical perspective. Focus on saving lives and not on unnecessarily risking others.

If you are underequipped, focus on strategies and agreements to correct the problem. Resist the urge to be overly confident in your current state and just keep on plugging.

4. Technical points

As you develop technical skills and tactics, allow engineering from tabulated data, soil engineers, leading practitioners, and OSHA and NFPA guidelines be your rudder.

Your secondary mechanism should be the victim. Let your victims drive your rescue plans. If your shoring sequences take three hours for a standard 12-foot zone, you are accepting recovery as your operational mode instead of rescue.

Be creative and apply your ingenuity. Firefighters are incredibly resourceful and mechanically minded. Use those God-given gifts to find new solutions to old and new problems. But remember to vet your solutions with subject-matter experts and guidelines.

If you aren’t pushing your technical skills to be fast, strong and safe, you are ripe. None of us want to be ripe, but we all have been at times.

Always be on the lookout for complacency and be hyper critical of yourself and your team. We have an overwhelming responsibility to save lives and perform flawlessly without dying or getting injured. Make it a real goal to be ready not ripe.

Dalan Zartman is a 20-year career veteran of the fire service and president and founder of Rescue Methods, LLC. He is assigned to a heavy rescue and is an active leader as a member of both local and national tech rescue response teams. Zartman has delivered fire and technical rescue training courses and services around the globe for more than 15 years. He is also an international leader in fire-based research, testing, training and consulting related to energy storage, and serves as the COO at the Energy Security Agency. Zartman serves as regional training program director and advisory board member for the Bowling Green State University State Fire School. He is a certified rescue instructor, technical rescue specialist, public safety diver, fire instructor II, firefighter II, and EMTP.