Rescue Training in Live Environments: My Experience Aboard the USSNC


USS North Carolina

For many Rescue Technicians, the opportunity to train in a real live environment isn’t something that happens everyday. We try to make the simulation and environment as real life as possible but are road blocked by having a safe environment without the potential of an incident to occur to us. This happens especially in the rescue aspect of Confined spaces. We are informed that the space may have a possible air quality hazard, that access and egress are limited and if we go into these spaces, who is it that will rescue us?

I recently had an opportunity to train in a true confined space with limited hazards (to negotiate all hazards is near impossible). The rescue company, to which I work for, was willing to send me to a group of Rescue Professionals in North Carolina, aboard the decommissioned USS North Carolina Battleship. I instantly jumped at the chance to train with other Rescue Professionals and to have a live environment.

The American Emergency Response Training team (AERT) based out of Knoxville, Tennessee, annually puts on a weeklong, intensive Confined Space Rescue course aboard the USSNC. The company I work for, Ronin Safety and Rescue, was first introduced to these gentlemen during the annual International Technical Rescue Symposium (ITRS), where the top Rescue Professionals meet and discuss everything and anything about Technical Rescue. All the AERT Instructors were NFPA certified Technicians and minimum SPRAT level1 certified. During the weeklong course, there were 11 instructors to 15 students, a ratio that I have never seen before in any Rescue course.

The USS North Carolina was first built in 1941 and in service during the 2nd World War. It was the most decorated warship during that time and recorded a high of 24-enemy aircraft kills, the most of any warship (there were more but none could be confirmed). The Battleship needed more than 2000 personnel in order for it to function efficiently. It was decommissioned in 1947 and later turned into a commemorative.

USS North Carolina

The Rescue course is based on the USSNC in Wilmington, North Carolina. It is scheduled for 5 days, 5 long days as I found out. Average days were 14 hours of lectures, demonstrations and practical evolutions. Going into the course my expectations were high and I was curious about the differences between Canadian/US regulations, types of systems used, types of equipment utilized, etc.

Days 1&2 consisted mainly of the NFPA requirements and skill development, such as lowering and raising Attendants, litter transitions, tripod set ups, supplied air (SAR), etc. These were all completed upon their simulator, which was a semi-trailer, with a customized Confined Space training ground and platform up top for high angle exercises.

Day 3, where the fun began, was presented aboard the USSNC Battleship. We finally got to see what we came for. The day began with an orientation of the site and progressed to a day of multiple stations throughout the deck of the ship, honing our skills and slowly introducing some benign spaces. One station consisted of making a hasty recovery of a victim inside a space with a 3×3’ hatch with anchoring techniques. Another station involved a tripod setup for lowering and raising an attendant on SAR through a 24” hatch. A third station of tripod setup, specifically the Terradaptor from SMC, was utilized to teach the different configurations and its limitations. Finally a setup for confidant climbing, with 100% tie offs and rappelling on a 100 ft vertical mast. We finished the night with some light lectures.

Day 4, after completing the majority of skills that needed to be checked off, started with scenarios. There were a series of scenarios but all could have been varied. My 1st scenario consisted of a downed worker in environment 2 floors below the deck. The victim was a down a 4×4’ vertical shaft, then horizontally 15ft into a catwalk that was just wide enough for a basket stretcher. Of course the air quality was a hazard and SAR was required. The 2nd scenario consisted of another vertical shaft, but this time the openings were oval shaped and 24” wide. The shaft itself was offset and not an easy straight vertical line. Maneuvering between the floors with the patient being over 6ft and over 200 lbs wasn’t an easy task. On top of all this, the opening to the shaft was obstructed by an overhead bulkhead, which only gave you 3ft of vertical space over the opening. The 3rd and final scenario of the day was a victim in an engulfment scenario. The AERT instructors placed 2 victims in a vertical shaft, below grade and engulfed them in wine corks; they were actually engulfed up to their necks! Safely, of course. Bucket after bucket, we were eventually able to free the patients from this. We finished off the day by building a 300 ft twin track line off the topmast of the ship and rode it down via a lowering line. It was our zip line and reward for our hard efforts for the day.

Day 5, our final day, we had our last scenario as our practical exam. The location was inside one of the main turret gun assemblies of the ship. It consisted of 5 levels below the ship deck, where there were many nooks and crannies that one could easily get lost in. It was an all hands on scenario and almost all members of our student team were sucked into the space. The spaces were so tight it only allowed one person, on hands and knees, in at a time in a chain formation. Rigging and re-rigging as the patient moved throughout the labyrinth. These were the spaces where the actual sailors had to maneuver to, in order to perform their duties within the Battleship. In total the rescue consisted of multiple levels of 60 vertical feet, 300 linear feet, offset vertical shafts, serpentine horizontal shafts and spaces so tight that barely my 5’10”, 190-pound frame could fit.

Coming back from this experience and contemplating what this type of training achieved was unforgettable!

To be snagged on every little hinge and exposed metal, to slither through the maze of spaces and maneuver a packaged patient through this crawlspace, one cannot re-create it through plywood tunnels. I truly believe after going through this, I’m confident in my abilities in rescuing a person from any Confined Space. The sum of all the knowledge of experienced instructors, to the student to instructor ratio, to the support for all the students, to the “push” of our limits to work as a team and of course to the training grounds all contributed to an amazing and fantastic learning environment.

It definitely sets a bar on how training in live environments should be.

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