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Real-world scenarios help Neb. USAR team with rescue training

The simulations at the site in Lincoln tested the team’s abilities in concrete breaching, breaking, shoring, lifting and rigging


Nebraska Task Force 1/Facebook

By Alyssa Johnson
Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN, Neb. — Members of Nebraska Task Force 1 finished a two-week structural collapse training course Friday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 80-hour course for structural collapses was completed by 15 new rescue specialists from Southeast Nebraska. The two-week course is just a small part of the two years of training the firefighters have gone through to become rescue specialists.

The training comes in the wake of a Davenport, Iowa, apartment collapse earlier this week. While the timing of the training was coincidental, the course occurs every three to five years to prepare for unexpected catastrophes.

“That’s why we train,” Capt. Ashley Engler said. “It can happen at any point in time, that’s why we have to be ready.”

Battalion Chief Brad Thavenet has been deployed several times across the country, including for the deadly 2021 building collapse in Surfside, Florida.

“It really helps you set up the scenario based on what can happen in the real world,” Thavenet said of the training.

On Friday, their final scenario included a simulation of a parking garage collapse near Pinnacle Bank Arena as crowds exit after a concert. The simulation took place at a training facility in south Lincoln used by the task force and Lincoln Fire and Rescue, with storage units transformed into fallen concrete structures with displaced cars, fires, explosions and trapped victims. The exercise posed a threat not only to victims but to first responders as they had their abilities tested in concrete breaching, breaking, shoring, lifting and rigging. Two trapped victims were placed amid the simulation.

The trainees were divided into two squads working on similar simulations with instructors nearby to coach and instruct. The instructors checked over each step to break the habit of cutting corners and running steps together and to build muscle memory to help the team in the long run.

Structural Engineer Aaron Buettner was among the instructors checking over the work of cutting wood to build stabilizers for the structure.

“The techniques that we’re learning today will be instrumental to learning how to get into that structure safely and recover victims who are trapped inside,” Buettner said.

The simulation is carefully built to allow the instructors to track progress and time spent to ensure the squads are working effectively.

Four search and rescue dogs were also at the scene Friday to undergo their own training in finding buried victims. Thavenet said the dogs practice nearly weekly in piles of rubble. The rubble, consisting of rough fragments of concrete, stone and debris, comes from construction companies and busted projects. The pile is consistently moved around to provide a new course for the dogs.

The training included a victim hiding in a hole in the rubble for each of the dogs to sniff out and alert their handler for a reward. Lead canine search specialist Andrew Pitcher said the dogs are all highly driven and have a strong desire to work.

Most of the dogs come from the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, where the dogs were taken in from shelters to be trained before they reach two years old.

“They come from being vulnerable dogs to valuable dogs,” Pitcher said.

The dogs are seen as advanced search tools to the team as they can enter collapsed structures after a tornado or hurricane and pinpoint victims down to about 10 feet in an unstable scene within minutes. Constant training is vital for the dog and handler to understand one another.

“It’s critical for the whole team,” Pitcher said. “You’ve got to build a lot of trust and respect between the team members and the canine.”

In addition to their quick skills, the dogs are also considered a part of the family as they often travel across the country to high-tension situations.

“The dogs come along and it’s good emotional support for the team,” Pitcher said.

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