First responders practice extrications
February 2, 2023
By Diana Zimmerman
There were 43 volunteer firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics from all five Wahkiakum County Fire Districts at Hancock Sort Yard last Thursday, making their way through four drill stations, learning how to stabilize vehicles that have been in accidents, and how to do extrications.
The combined knowledge and experience on the field that night was hard to comprehend, with all the years of volunteer service walking around and the few who were formerly career firefighters but now do it for free, and willingly share what they've learned with their new crew. Everyone was soaking it up, with a bit of a light drizzle, so common on a January day in the Northwest, it wasn't even noticed.
They were learning and practicing valuable skills they may need to help their neighbors on some of their worst days.
M.D. Johnson of District 4 Fire Department talked me through it.
There were eight donated cars in varying positions at the sort yard, two at each station. Engine lights and bright lamps lit up the area and with a blast of the horn, volunteer firefighters would move to the next station. At one, they practiced vehicle and scene stabilization. At two stations, they were learning a variety of tactics from instructors who had mastered different skills while they practiced using hydraulic tools, what some people might know as the Jaws of Life. And at the fourth station, volunteers practiced using hand tools, always a good skill to have if the hydraulics are not available for one reason or another.
Johnson listed off names of the instructors, and the senior, most experienced volunteers on site, sharing their years of knowledge. So many, from so many departments.
The hydraulic tools cut through metal, through the door fillers, they cut doors open, cut door latches. In a head on collision the dash can be lifted off the person while the door is cut open at the same time.
"It's amazingly well orchestrated when you watch these people who know what they are doing," Johnson said. "They want to get everyone on the same page."
At one station, District 4 Training Officer Jack Leavitt, who became a volunteer seven years ago as a senior in high school, was teaching others how to cut pillars on a car, the support pieces between the body of the car and the roof, to roll the rooftop back or to cut the door, in order to extricate people who have been in an accident. Roof removals and dash rolls, he called them. So young, he's already responded to scenes like this when it wasn't a drill.
At another station, Chris Gartski and Phil Ogle were teaching volunteers to use electric tools, running off a generator from a District 4 engine. Powering things like Sawzalls to cut doors and pillars, or cordless tools, and hand tools similar to hydraulic spreaders and cutters.
Leavitt said vehicles and the technology to build them are constantly changing, and firefighters have to keep up, learning and adapting.
"There are a lot of techniques for getting a car open and getting people out," Johnson said. "Where you cut, how you cut, the precautions that you take, the tools that you use. Do you roll the hood back, do you just open the trunk and take the back seats out? A lot of it is being able to walk up to the scene, seeing the situation and know what tools you need to use and what you need to do. It's always different."
"This training is excellent, it's a foundation, but every situation is going to be different," Johnson said. "Several have had enough training, they are able to think on their feet."
Johnson is very proud of his fellow volunteers.
"Wahkiakum County has no career fire fighters, but we have an incredible wealth of talent," he said. "We are fortunate to have the people we do on fire departments and ambulances."
As for Leavitt, he started teaching drills the moment he made the rank of lieutenant and prides himself in showing up week in and week out.
"It's unusual for me to miss a drill," he said. "I love this. This is 100 percent volunteer. This is what I do for my fun, free time. It's something I look forward to every week. We drill every Thursday at 7 p.m. It's a good group of people to be around. I live on a farm, so I don't see a lot of people. This is my people time and my recharge. It's my second family.
He has trained a lot of volunteers..
"Some of them went from knowing nothing," he said, "to where we roll up to an emergency and I can depend on them to do what I need them to do all the way to the end. We have a miraculous group of people here who would give you the shirt off their back if they thought it would help you. It's fantastic is what this is."
"I've been volunteer for District 4 for 10 years," Falon Hoven said, giving a woman's perspective. "I'm seeing a lot of younger girls coming out. There are definitely women, and we are definitely outnumbered."
"I've never had a bad experience out here with the guys," she added. "I've been on interior fires, with car accidents, car fires, wild land fire fighting. You're giving back to the community, and there is the camaraderie. I really enjoy the connections I have. It's a great way to stay connected and active in the community."
Even after 10 years, she's still learning something new and finds the experience empowering. There is nothing she can't do.
"There isn't a guy or gal on District 4 that I wouldn't trust inside of a house that was on fire, and that's the kind of connection with people you get when you do this long enough," she said. "We're always looking for volunteers, but there is a good core group that show up for training and show up for calls. That's important having those people that are consistent. In every department that is important because we are all volunteer."