With potential emergencies posing risks to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, many residents and visitors do not realize the expertise available to respond to these emergencies within the Salt River Fire Department (SRFD).
Sixteen firefighters from the department’s Technical Rescue Team (TRT) are certified in swift-water rescue (rescuing people trapped in flash floods and rivers); high angle/low angle above-ground rescues from towers, mountains or other structures; and rescues from confined spaces such as trenches and sewer and drainage pipes. The certified firefighters at the SRFD have the skill and equipment needed to perform these rescues safely.
SRFD Chief David Bunce said the department was awarded funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, which allowed the department to send an initial group of nine firefighters through a 12-week intensive training course conducted regionally through the Phoenix Fire Department.
“Anytime a TRT team goes on a technical rescue call—no team can do it alone—we are supported by Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa [firefighters], and those are also the people we train with every month,” Bunce said.
TRT Tuesdays are the training days when SRFD teams go out and train on each rescue discipline; they need to keep their skills sharp because these types of specialized rescues are not performed very often.
Benefits to the Community
Having the TRT team implemented within the SRFD has proved to be extremely beneficial.
“We actually had to use it during the building of Talking Stick Resort—it was a minor injury, but we had to [move the victim] off [a] precarious place,” Bunce said. “It was also important as the new construction was taking place, with people digging trenches, which means the risk is there. We know [starting a TRT team] was a smart thing to do, because [technical rescues] may be low frequency, but the risk is really high.”
Technical Rescue Training is expensive; prior to receiving the grant, all the firefighters were trained on an operational level, which means they could respond to a TRT call but only execute certain functions, such as setting up a perimeter and providing crowd control and safety. They were not able to do any extractions; they would have to call the TRTs from other cities to come in and complete the technical work.
“And now we can do that as well. Now we jump in with both feet and have the equipment,” Bunce said.
After establishing the TRT, the fire department converted a heavy-duty ambulance into a technical support vehicle where they team can store all the necessary rescue equipment.
SRFD Firefighter Nelson Wood is a
member of the TRT and is stationed at Indian Bend Station 293. Wood described several tools the TRT uses during training exercises and actual emergencies. He said in the truck and in their personal bags they have a lot of ropes for low- and high-angle rescues on buildings and in rough terrain. They also have a saw for tunneling and working with building collapses, and are trained to build systems to support the building to tunnel through. Wood also said they also have a boat for water rescue on the Verde and Salt rivers.
“We have an air-monitoring system designed to send oxygen into people trapped below [ground] or to rescuers in a tunnel. There is also a communication system,” Wood said.
TRT Goes to Work
The call for the June 21, 2011 helicopter crash on the Community originally went out as a landfill fire. Bunce said the SRFD was on its way responding to the call when they gained additional information that it was a helicopter crash by the Salt River Landfill, near State Route 87 and Gilbert Road. An Incident Command system was set up with a unified command from the Mesa Fire Department, the SRFD and an air-based paramedic team from Boeing, the helicopter’s manufacturer. The SRFD helped search for the downed helicopter on the ground.
The SRFD also assisted with the Monument Fire in southern Arizona.
Bunce said SRFD has a Wildland Fire Team much like the TRT.
“The Monument Fire needed 15 big fire engines, and we were a resource ready to go,” he explained. “They needed the trucks fast and they couldn’t come from far away. First of all, [a responding fire department has to have a large] truck and then they have to have people qualified; you can’t send regular firefighters into [a wildfire situation]. We were part of the 15–fire engine deployment; [members of SRFD] were down there for one week and they did a great job.”
Costs for dispatching firefighting trucks and teams, and feeding the firefighters, are covered by the state when the wildfire is on state land, and by the federal government if the fire is on federal land. The Community did not have to pay the SRFD firefighters who worked the Monument fire.