Valdosta > GSAR Puts Training into Practice

| December 31, 2014

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VALDOSTA — Specialized training in confined space rescue, building collapse, and heavy rigging for crane operations came in handy for the Valdosta Fire Department (VFD) in the aftermath of the EF2-rated tornado that struck through Valdosta, Lowndes County on Dec. 29.

Within 3 minutes, VFD units were on scene of Langdale Forrest Products, with life safety as their primary objective. In the first few minutes, there was an assessment of those trapped or injured, after 30 minutes there were patients being transported from the building to the hospital, and within the next hour, there were four or more headcounts to be absolutely certain all personnel were accounted for at the site.

Some of the first responders were members of the Georgia Search and Rescue (GSAR) Task Force Team 2, a 70-member team of highly-trained rescuers representing 11 fire departments in southwest Georgia. The VFD received the prestigious GSAR designation by Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue in 2006, which came with a $1.1 million grant through the Georgia Office of Homeland Security for the purchase of equipment and team training. The GSAR team and its resources are housed at the VFD, but serve all of southwest Georgia, as well as the entire state and the nation as assigned.

“The resources that come with a GSAR unit are far beyond what the typical fire department can independently finance and equip,” said VFD Capt. Brian Boutwell, incident commander at the Dec. 29 rescue event. “The advantage of having these resources and on scene so quickly, at the very least, aided in the time frame it took to free these victims. Without these resources, the patients would have been freed, but it would have taken much longer.”

GSAR team members responding to the Dec. 29 tornado devastation included six members from the VFD, one from Lowndes County Fire and Rescue, and one from the Georgia Fire Academy, who by coincidence was in Valdosta and able to respond with the team.

According to GSAR Team Captain Ken Gallagher of the VFD, members are trained to recognize the dynamics of a complicated building collapse, like the one they had on their hands Monday, which involved a trapped person inside. Gallagher explained how members had to very carefully navigate the building, which was still moving, so as not to cause further injury to the patient or any of the personnel on scene. As GSAR members made the initial cuts into the building debris to gain access, it was determined to do a lift to free a beam that was hindering the patient’s egress. The GSAR team successfully accomplished the task, and the person was quickly transported to SGMC for medical attention.

Firefighters use maps of the buildings to aid in locating potentially trapped patients and other hazards on site; however, in an event like this, things may change. According to Capt. Boutwell, Langdale Forest Products employees were instrumental in the rescue of their coworkers by sharing their knowledge of the building. The message here for both residents and local business and industry employees is this: “No one knows your facility as well you do.”

The team had to mitigate some other hazards on scene, such as damaged vehicles and two overturned rail cars, that needed to be inspected for hazardous materials—something else the GSAR team is trained to accomplish.

“We train all year long for situations like this, and we put it in to place yesterday,” said VFD Chief Freddie Broome. “I am also extremely proud of how the various agencies came together to operate as a unified command. As a result we were able to effectively mitigate the situation and get everyone out safely.”

Sementha Mathews: Public Information Officer

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