By John Anderson
Commuters coming out of Southbridge and up Rte. 169 on Tuesday morning were probably wondering about the parade of fire trucks heading south and amassing at 288 Southbridge Rd. in Charlton. They were witnessing the start of Operation BuzzER, a massive Technical Rescue exercise for Massachusetts Fire District 7 at Millennium Power, a 360-megawatt combined cycle generation facility in Charlton.
District 7 is made up of 25 cities and towns in southern Worcester County, and 15 participate in the Technical Rescue Team which currently has 48 members. Each member has received 128 hours of initial training, and the team meets bi-monthly for 4 hours of ongoing training. The team is two years old and is structured to deploy necessary personnel and equipment in the event of a structure collapse, trench or confined space rescue, or high angle emergency.
The team is led by Oxford Fire Chief Sheri Bemis and is supported by a five member Technical Rescue Committee. The district has received $299,835.29 from the Department of Homeland Security for equipment and training including $38,574 to run this exercise. The drill was designed by members of the Plymouth County Technical Rescue Team who were on site for evaluation purposes.
The exercise was based on a microburst hitting the power plant and leaving 8 workers injured in various locations on the site. Ironically, this power plant is a stone’s throw away from the path of the 2011 tornado that hit the area and did extensive damage. The victims were mannequins used by the fire service for rescue training purposes.
The drill was conducted in real time as well, so fire units arrived in a time that was consistent with their distance from the actual location. For a town like Auburn, a response time of about 15 minutes would be normal, and that could be longer depending who was on duty when the call came in. To benefit from the exercise, all five of Auburn’s members were present: Lt. Justin Brigham and firefighters Jon Martin, Adam Rivers, Scott Davis and Ovi Ticlea. They also serve as paramedics for the Town of Auburn.
The Technical Rescue Team practiced high angle and trench rescues during the exercise. Both were appropriate for the site which was operational for the entire time. Victims were lowered down by rope from about 60 feet off the ground. Crew also removed victims from the underground sump room in the main plant. The slide show highlights much of this activity.
Yesterday, Auburn Fire Chief and District 7 Chairman Stephen Coleman, Jr. told Auburn Mass Daily, “I think operationally things went very well with the rescues. The goal was to test the team’s skills and abilities and their ability to work together. In that respect, we were all very pleased with the outcome.”
Coleman added, “The drill did highlight some areas that we need to work on in terms of increasing our communication infrastructure. When you have 25 cities and towns all working with different types of bandwidth for a radio system, there are going to be some challenges in trying to patch that together with a communications vehicle to make it so we can all talk to each other. The drill highlighted some shortfalls within the radio communications plan that have already begun to be addressed. Radio communications and infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing the fire district so this information was not a surprise, but was a great opportunity to test it’s complete functionality.
It also highlighted the importance of having what is known as a “District Assist Team” arrive very early within a large-scale incident. The Incident Commander and the Command Post can get overwhelmed very early on in an incident with requests for additional resources. If the Incident Commander does not have adequate support from other Chief Officers to fill out command roles and functions you will be playing catch up for the entire incident. You need staff to run operations, staging, logistics, planning, etc. District 7 is in the process of finalizing a District Assist Team that will send Chief Officers to the scenes of large-scale emergencies to assist the local Incident Commander. There is so much work that needs to be done in a short amount of time we have to rely on each other for support to get it done.”