Good training for bad scenarios

Published 7:26 pm Tuesday, November 17, 2020

When seconds count and lives are on the line, the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department is ready.

But readiness requires realistic training. That’s why the department is hosting an upcoming specialized class focused on vehicle extrication. The training, which attracts fire and rescue personnel from throughout the region, the state and beyond, goes beyond practicing and perfecting what to do when responding to a typical head-on collision.

As part of the training, which is set for Dec. 4-6 at the station on South Church Street, the fire department is strengthening its alliance and coordination with area towing companies by inviting and encouraging their participation during rescues, instead of after the fact.

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In an emergency, rescue and health care workers often cite the golden hour rule. If an injured person makes it to the hospital for treatment within 60 minutes, their chances of survival are much higher.

“But if it takes us 45 minutes to 60 minutes to get them cut out from underneath a bus or tractor trailer, their survival rate is going way down,” said Ryan Brown, a life member firefighter who also works for Dave’s Service Center in Smithfield as a towing operator.

The focus of the class is on unusual calls — not just head-on accidents or single overturned vehicles.

“The county has donated [school] buses,” Brown said. “We take buses and put cars underneath buses. My company brings a lot of cars in,” Brown said. Another company, Suffolk-based Chip’s Repair & Towing Service, also participates by providing a heavy duty rotating wrecker truck that’s used to move very large vehicles.

Brown has been with the department nearly 21 years. He’s taken the lead in improving coordination and training between first responders and towing companies. Even with a smaller wrecker, he said, there’s a lot of capability to help firefighters, likely saving minutes and lives in the process.

Then the students get to work, practicing their rescue skills. By training together, a wrecking company and the fire department can reduce a rescue from possibly 45 minutes to 10 or 15 minutes. In the car under the bus scenario, “we can bring the truck in, spin [the wrecker] around, pick the bus up, pull the car from underneath and remove the patient.”

“This is probably one of the premier vehicle rescue schools on the East Coast, with instructors from all over,” firefighter Chris Zach said. Jason Koepke, the department’s training chief, agreed.

“We’ve had people come from Indiana, New York, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia — they come from all over. We get a lot of out of state students,” Koepke said. “This is our third year doing the vehicle rescue class.”

Every year, they add something new to make the training experience more realistic and challenging.

“Last year, we brought in a big tree trunk and laid the tree across the car,” Brown said. “We’ve brought jersey walls in. We had dumpsters and we built a little house and made it so the car went into a house and you couldn’t get to any of the doors, so you had to go through the roof.”

To further the realism, they don’t set up any emergency training scenes until the morning of the event so that way students can’t brainstorm ahead of time on how to deal with the scenario — they have to respond on the fly, just as if it were a real call.

The vehicle extrication training started after an accident on Turner Drive several years ago that involved family members of a past department chief. Although everyone did all they could, the crash claimed the life of one person.

In response, the department doubled down on training. Brown stepped up to help by providing all types of vehicles to practice on. Anyone who has a vehicle they’d like to donate for fire department training may call or text Brown at 757-618-3388. The donations are tax deductible.

Organizers also follow up with participants to shape ideas for future training based on their interest and real world experience. In addition to the towing companies, training sponsors include Atlantic Emergency Solutions and Interstate Rescue. Both companies sell emergency equipment.

More training is on deck for next year.

Smithfield VFD plans to hold a three-day “truck class” starting March 5, 2021. Firefighters from throughout the region and East Coast are once again expected to participate and learn best practices and hands-on lessons in operating what people outside the field commonly call ladder trucks or aerials. Visit to learn more about next year’s event.