Originally published in the Holyoke Sun
By Kristin Will
June 17, 2013
HOLYOKE – Firefighters from four Western Massachusetts counties are literally learning the ropes of technical rescue thanks to a grant from the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
Initially formed in 2012, the Western Massachusetts Technical Rescue Team [WMTRT] will assist regional fire departments called to confined space, trench, high-angle and building collapse rescues.
“This is a large component that we were missing here at this end of the state,” said South Hadley Fire District No. 2 Chief David Keefe. Local fire chiefs met three years ago to initiate the team’s formation. Grants received from the Department of Public Health, Department of Homeland Security, Springfield Carpenters Union and local labor councils propelled the team forward in 2012.
Having trained throughout the year, WMTRT Director and South Hadley Fire District No. 2 Assistant Chief Bill Selkirk said the team will be ready to rescue in a few months. “This is a huge asset,” he said. “There are teams all over the state. It’s not a new concept. We just never had one.” The WMTRT consists of nearly 100 firefighters spanning towns and cities in Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Berkshire counties. Sub groups consist of approximately 30 firefighters.“This team is available to any fire department in Western Massachusetts,” said Selkirk.
Three trailers of rope rescue gear and safety equipment will be placed at three fire stations in Amherst, Holyoke and Northampton, ready to go at a moments notice. Subgroups of the team will be dispatched to incidents through the Amherst Fire Department. Fire Departments in towns and cities in which an incident occurs will call Amherst, who will then use a dispatch system called I Am Responding. The text message-based system will shoot bursts of texts to WMTRT members nearest the emergency scene. “Not every department has the equipment or training to be able to handle an operation like this,” said Agawam Fire Fighter R.J. Pensivy. “We’re here to help regionally.”
Funding to support the team is a major reason why no such group previously formed. Amherst has a technical rescue team that often assists fire departments locally. For South Hadley, the Amherst team often assists with rescues on the Mount Holyoke Range. “It’s needed,” said Agawam Fire Fighter Bob LaFrance. Josh Mullen, of the Wilbraham Fire Department, agreed. “We’re kind of sparsely populated out here,” he said. Previously, if an incident occurred where a rope rescue was needed, “there was no mechanism” in place to quickly assist.
“I just love doing this,” said Mullen. “It’s a natural extension of what I do normally.” Mullen was among a sub group of firefighters who attended a training session Wednesday in Holyoke, including firefighters from Agawam, Chicopee, Holyoke, Ludlow, Springfield and Wilbraham.
Fire fighters scaled the Dwight Street parking garage, learning how to safely and properly descend and ascend a makeshift concrete mountain. “When tornado went through, there was a large amount of building collapses. That’s where a team like this comes in,” said Selkirk. Other examples of instances to which the team would respond include workers stuck atop cell phone towers and window washers stuck on tall buildings. So to will they respond to hikers caught in crevices or caves. “We have a bunch of great people on the team,” said Selkirk, who called his appointment as director a compliment. “All fire departments should know this team exists.”