Story and photos by Devin Fisher
Fort Carson and Colorado Springs firefighters came to the rescue of 20 people “injured” when a “tornado” touched down on the Mountain Post just after noon Aug. 11 during a mock training exercise.
Within 20 minutes of being on scene, the firefighters rescued 17 victims on the north side of building 6281, west of Ironhorse Park, and stabilized a damaged exterior wall so they could safely search the rubble for additional victims.
The first responders rapidly worked together drilling access holes so they could use the confined-space search camera to look for additional victims in three concrete structures. The firefighters used power saws to cut through the cement walls, hydraulic jacks to support the structure as they gained access to the victims and successfully pulled three more victims to safety.
Fortunately, this day was for training purposes only. The firefighters participated in the urban search and rescue lane, one of the five areas of the lane-based natural disaster training exercises conducted as part of the ongoing Mountain Response Plan, preparing the Fort Carson community for possible natural and man-made disasters.
This experience will enhance the firefighters’ response if they are ever called upon to assist in the wake of a tornado, or other natural disaster, said Fort Carson Assistant Fire Chief Justin Schliske.
He said the Aug. 11 exercise was one of the most realistic training scenarios he has seen.
“As firefighters, it’s hard to replicate the true chaos and emotions that happen in a real-world emergency,” Schliske said. “You try to push them (firefighters) and try to get that sense of realism … (that) makes the shock of an actual incident less incapacitating.”
Fort Carson Fire Chief Glen Silloway said the training makes the Mountain Post fire department a better resource for the Front Range. He noted Fort Carson currently has 26 mutual-aid agreements with six different counties, from Denver to Trinidad.
“This exercise is the reality here on the Front Range,” said Fort Carson Fire Department Training Chief Tom Joyce. He noted El Paso County has had several tornado warnings this summer and tornadoes touched down Tuesday in Lake George and Walsenburg, about 40 miles west and 90 miles south of Fort Carson, respectively.
“While it (a tornado touching down) may or may not happen here at Fort Carson, this is something we could respond to in mutual aid in our surrounding jurisdictions.”
Schliske said the joint training with Colorado Springs Fire Department was invaluable, providing the opportunity for the on- and off-post firefighters to work together, compare operating procedures and ensure they are using the same terminology.
“It’s a team pyramid and every piece is extremely important. If you never see each other and never get to work together (during an exercise), it’s a complete and total unknown until you throw them together (in the middle of a real-world emergency),” Schliske said.
The exercise afforded the Fort Carson Fire Department an opportunity to test its newest equipment, the Paratech raker shore, which, according to Schliske, passed with flying colors. The equipment is used to stabilize damaged buildings, and first responders can even breach through the supported wall to gain access if needed.
“To put it all together and realize how quickly you can do something that seems just completely overwhelming, and we do it in 19 minutes, that’s a huge change over building these (raker structure) piece by piece with lumber,” he said.
Under the old process, it could take 20 minutes to construct just one side of the raker structure. He noted firefighters had to determine measurements, cut each piece to length, nail it all together, erect the structure, anchor it down and finally tighten it.
Exercises such as this afford the leadership of the Fort Carson Fire Department the opportunity to continually evaluate its capabilities and limitations, Schliske said. “As we identify limitations, we start making plans to make ourselves better and stronger. Each step of the way, we are constantly looking for ways to do things better, smarter, faster.”
Joyce echoed: “Exercises are there to validate our training, and our SOPs (standard operating procedures) to see if what is written actually works,” Joyce said. “We have to go out there, test it and make sure it works.”
In addition to urban search and rescue, the exercise also featured four other lanes for Mountain Post agencies to test their disaster response, according to Lt. Col. Chris DeGaray, U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Carson, operations. Evans Army Community Hospital tested its mass-casualty procedures as the tornado victims were medevaced to the facility and the Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation set up a shelter for the on-post Families and their pets displaced when several quarters were “notionally” destroyed by the tornado. Army Community Service established the Emergency Family Assistance Center and the garrison Emergency Operations Center stood up to synchronize the recovery efforts of first responders and other Fort Carson directorates.
Overall, the exercise was successful, DeGaray said.
“There were a lot of important lessons learned that we are going to build on for future training exercises,” he said.
Fort Carson will continue training for both natural and man-made disasters through table-top, full-scale and combination table-top/full-scale exercises, DeGaray said.
“We will continue to exercise our critical, collective and individual tasks to ensure we are prepared for any type of on-post incident.”