First on the Scene: Trench rescues are methodical, labor intensive and often unsuccessful

Editor’s Note: This series of articles examines the business and human costs of trench-collapse fatalities in the United States. Click here to see the full set of articles in this series.

First on the scene

Trench rescues are methodical, labor intensive and often unsuccessful

By Joy Powell & Marcia Gruver Doyle

A rescue: After working for 6-1/2 hours in March 2017, Omaha firefighters rescued 23-year-old Drew Johnson, who was buried up to his knees in a 12-foot trench, according to the Omaha World-Herald. (Reprinted with permission from the Omaha World-Herald.)

Firefighters train in a concrete trench at the Alabama Fire College.

“Not a hell of a lot of people survive it.”

That’s the assessment of Fire Chief Cecil “Buddy” Martinette Jr. of Wilmington, North Carolina, the author of the textbook “Trench Rescue” and a frequently cited expert on rescue training.

“A majority of people out there who install underground utilities do it according to the book,” Martinette says. “They are very safe, and they care about their employees. But that’s not every case.”

If a worker is completely buried, it’s almost always lethal, Martinette says. “If the weight of the soil doesn’t crush you, then you’ll certainly suffocate in three or four minutes.”

The only chance after that point: if a victim has somehow found an air pocket, either in the dirt or a pipe. That is why first responders keep on working, even as the minutes and hours tick on.

“I tell our students to expect the worst and hope for the best,” says Rick Gregg, group supervisor with the Alabama Fire College.

Every trench rescue is different, from the soil conditions to the likelihood of saving someone, says Ulie Seal, fire chief in Bloomington, a Minneapolis suburb. He’s a founding member and former coordinator of Minnesota Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1, composed of five Minnesota fire departments with firefighters and paramedics from surrounding metro agencies, as well as physicians.

“It really depends on the severity of the collapse, the kind of collapse, how deep the person was, and whether or not we can provide a protected place for them fairly quickly when we get there,” Seal says of the chance for survival. “There’s just a whole lot of ‘ifs’ there.”

With situations varying, there are steps and approaches that firefighters might not know unless they’ve received specialized training.

“There’s a lot to this,” says Rich Alfes, co-owner and director of Spec Rescue International, a Virginia firm that provides consulting, education and training for specialized rescues. A retired shift commander for the Naugatuck Fire Department in Connecticut, he trains emergency response technicians and military troops in special operations and is on a federal rescue team.

In Mankato, Minnesota, firefighters learn to stabilize trench collapses with the use of shoring and struts.

Alfes points out, for example, that even when they have the proper equipment, firefighters are advised not to enter trenches deeper than 15 feet. That’s largely because the primary protective systems they use – pneumatic struts, or shores – are not rated for anything deeper than 20 feet, he says.

Trench rescue is an advanced firefighter course, says Gregg. “Trench collapses for firefighters are low frequency, but high risk. You may not have one in three years, but when you do, you have to be ready for it. It’s not a quick process to get someone out.”

It takes eight to 12 responders to answer a 911 trench rescue, Gregg says. “If you’re a four-man engine company, there’s not a lot you can do by yourself,” he says. Not every fire department has people trained in trench rescue, and departments with limited resources rely on mutual-aid agreements for such help. Trench rescues can involve dozens of responders.

Ideally, emergency dispatchers will have a list of questions to ask the caller: How many are in the hole? How deep is the trench? Where can they access the site? Are there any obstacles? Gregg tells of one construction site so muddy the firefighter equipment had to be winched in with a dozer. “It’s a whole lot easier when you can start calling for needed assistance en route,” he says.

Once on the scene, responders seek out a contractor’s competent person, required by OSHA to oversee excavation jobsites. “He is your initial source of information,” says Larry Phillips, director of educational services for Spec Rescue International. The competent person should also have the manufacturer’s tabulated data for all trench protection systems in use onsite.

Sometimes, no workers at the accident scene speak English. And workers have been known to leave before help arrives, likely because they are undocumented.

The worst-case scenario is not knowing where the victim is, says Alex Roberts, president of S.A.S. Contracting, Bethel, Connecticut, and a 30-year first responder.

“The force of the soil could have moved his body over one way or another,” he says.

Responders look for clues – such as grease cans, ropes, water bottles – anything that will give them an idea where to start.

“A majority of people out there who install underground utilities do it according to the book. They are very safe, and they care about their employees. But that’s not every case.”

– Cecil “Buddy” Martinette, fire chief, Wilmington, North Carolina.

Emotions often run high during a trench collapse, with first responders encountering upset bystanders and co-workers. For trench rescue training, the Alabama Fire College brings in actors – usually other firefighters unknown to the students – to pose as distraught co-workers, among other roles.

“In construction, you have a lot of family teams, where say the dad is operating the backhoe and the son and cousin are in the trench,” Gregg explains. “When you come on the scene, they want to jump in and help and tell us we’re not doing our job, and that they’ll do it themselves if we won’t. We’ll act that out.”

Firefighters typically lay down plywood sheets, called ground pads. Then they use trench protection equipment to create a 12-foot safe zone in a straight trench.

(Trench intersections and corners create additional complications.) “Until they get all the shoring up, they can’t go down in there,” Gregg explains.

Not all fire departments have the same equipment or most up-to-date trench rescue equipment. Gregg notes that pneumatic or hydraulic shoring is a great tool, but expensive. Students at the Alabama Fire College learn how to use screw jacks and cut-to-length timbers to help shore a trench. Responders also have found vacuum trucks to be an excellent tool to excavate dirt.

To onlookers, the process may seem slow and methodical. “But any movement of dirt can trigger another collapse, so responders have to be in a safe area,” Gregg says.

“They’re getting to the victim as fast as they can without being a victim themselves.”

Vibrations from passing trains, running equipment and passing vehicles on a nearby road can prompt a secondary collapse; so can the rotor wash from an overhead helicopter when news crews get too close.

Responders must be well versed in dirt and assume they’re dealing with unstable soil. They refer to the first 2 feet of a trench as the “lip,” the bottom 2 feet as the “toe,” and the soil in between as the “belly.”

“The worst is mud, and dealing with a busted water line,” Gregg says. “You have to get the water shut off.”

The fire college practices with a 180-pound dummy made of used fire hoses. “If you find a victim’s feet, you need to get to his upper body real quick and uncover his chest,” Gregg says. “Chest, head, nose, mouth.”

Part of training first responders can involve placing a polyethylene box containing 1 cubic foot of dirt on their chests so they feel how much it weighs, Martinette says. “Of course, in some collapses, you’re dealing with hundreds of cubic feet of soil,” he says.

“A lot of people have this mistaken notion that if they get buried up to their waist they’re going to be fine,” Roberts says. “But you breathe through your diaphragm, which projects downward. You can still suffocate.”

“Every joint is going to become a weak spot when you get material pushing against it,” he adds. “Your legs can be twisted, and you can suffer multiple fractures. You may be permanently disabled.”

Firefighters treat survivors and prepare them for removal. But even when a victim leaves the hole still breathing, the danger’s not necessarily over.

One of the most serious dangers is “crush syndrome,” characterized by shock and kidney failure. Lactic acid builds in crushed muscles, and when responders remove the weight and free the patient, toxic blood rushes to vital organs. Responders can counter this by intravenously administering saline or medicines.

Trapped people can even suffer hypothermia because 4 feet down or deeper, the dirt can be 50 to 55 degrees.

Ultimately, first responders say, most trench deaths could be prevented if people stopped cutting corners. A large part of the construction population simply “lives by luck,” Seal says.

“There’s a lot more risky behavior out there than the number of calls we actually get,” he says. “And many times, by the time we get calls, those people were killed fairly quickly. Nobody’s going to save them.”