Illinois Rescuers Free Man Trapped in Trench

A June 2 trench rescue in northern Illinois illustrated common challenges associated with such incidents and how departments can work together for a successful outcome.

At 1238 HRS, a 911 caller reported a “man trapped in hole” at a construction site on North State Street in Belvidere. The Belvidere Fire Department (BFD) immediately dispatched Engine 101, Engine 102, Rescue 141 and Command 190; first units arrived on scene in 5 minutes.

Upon arrival, crews found a conscious and alert 38-year-old male patient trapped to his mid-torso level in a collapsed trench. A Belvidere Police Department officer on scene reported that he originally found the victim completely covered in soil except for half of his face, and that the patient’s co-workers had entered the trench and removed the dirt around his head, neck and chest. Additionally, EMS personnel from LifeLine Ambulance had already started medical treatment.

Belvidere crews realized that additional equipment, personnel and expertise would be needed so they activated the Illinois Mutual-Aid Box Alarm System (MABA Div 8) for the Technical Rescue Team. At 1257 HRS, the nearby Rockford Fire Department dispatched Engine 11 and Rescue 1, with the first unit arriving at 1312 HRS. Other departments dispatched to the incident eventually included Boone County District 2, Blackhawk Fire, Cherry Valley Fire, Harlem-Roscoe Fire, LifeLine Ambulance/Helicopter, Rockton Fire, North Park Fire Protection District, Northwest Fire Protection District and Stillman Valley Fire.

An incident command system was quickly established, including a safety officer and continuous air monitoring. Initial air monitoring showed the following measurements:

  • Carbon monoxide: 0 ppm
  • Oxygen: 20.8 ppm
  • Lower Explosive Limit (LEL): 0
  • Hydrogen sulfide: 0

Ongoing air monitoring showed similar readings throughout the operations.

The patient’s pulse was 80, and he was conscious and alert, answering all questions. Paramedics continued to monitor his pulse and provide oxygen and an IV throughout the incident.

The trench was approximately 3 ½ feet wide, 15 feet long and, at its lowest point, nearly 7 feet deep. But there was a complete sidewall collapse for about 12 to 15 feet along the length of the trench.

The shoring strategy was to insert thin forms, constructed of 4 x 8 plywood attached to 2 x 12s, then use pneumatic struts to hold them in position. But because of all the soil that had fallen into the trench, it was initially difficult to insert the shoring. So firefighters were faced with the arduous and time-consuming task of using long shovels and buckets to clear out as much loose dirt as possible. Complicating the process was the nature of the soil, which was mucky, class C soil made increasingly sodden by recent rains, which created a suction effect on boots and shovels.

Crews needed to stair-step the excavation away from the patient. Not only was this process physically intensive for the firefighters, but high heat and humidity quickly fatigued them.

There was a suction truck available from Belvidere Public Works Department, but it wasn’t used because its hose wasn’t long enough, and getting the suction truck any closer would have caused dangerous vibrations, potentially causing further collapse. Also, there was no air knife available in the area, so soil had to be removed only with buckets and shovels.

By 1300 HRS, firefighters had removed the spoil pile, then laid ground pads to create a stable work surface and help reduce the chance of secondary collapse.

By 1325 HRS, ventilation fans were in place. Also by about that time, the electrical and gas utility companies secured power and gas lines, and the Belvidere Public Works Department arrived to shut off water and sewer lines.

While the trench rescue was in progress, crews continued other tasks, such as rigging for lifting the patient, debris removal, personnel rehab and crowd control.

To raise the patient, rescuers extended a ladder platform with a directional, high-point anchor on its end. Through the pulley they threaded a main line rope, with an LSP Halfback on the patient end. They rigged a 3:1 MA haul system and piggy-backed it onto the main line.

At 1508 HRS enough of the patient had been freed, so rescuers began a slow haul to gradually lift him. Within only a couple minutes, one of the patient’s feet had been released from the soil; and shortly thereafter, the patient was completely released from the soil. At 1513 HRS, the patient was secured to a backboard and placed in a basket litter to remove him from the trench area.

At 1517 HRS, the patient was placed on an ambulance gurney and taken by ground ambulance several hundred yards to the waiting Lifeline helicopter, which transported him to Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, Ill.

After the preliminary investigation by an OSHA inspector was completed, rescuers removed all equipment from the trench. Rehab for all personnel on the scene was ordered and teardown began at 1627 HRS. By 1658 HRS, emergency personnel cleared, and the scene was released to the contractor and OSHA.

Sources: Rockford Fire Department Lt. Marty Schoonover and Training Division Chief Matthew W. Knott, along with Belvidere Fire Department Chief David Worrell, provided information for this report.

Lt. Schoonover offers the following observations.
“The operations might have gone faster if there had been more available personnel at the scene. Because of the high temperature and humidity, crews had to rotate out every 10 minutes. In the future, more firefighters should be called to such personnel-intensive incidents. This means there has to be a way of reaching more technical rescue team members. Currently, the Rockford Department, being the largest in the area and with the most Technical Team members, uses the Voice Shot Mail system to quickly alert its personnel. The departments are looking at extending the system to all personnel of Division 8 to quickly notify both on- and off-duty personnel.

“Currently the Technical Team trains twice a month, but the departments are looking at including other firefighters who are not team members. Most of the personnel at this and similar incidents are actually involved in support roles, such as getting equipment and setting it up, so including them in the training would give them greater knowledge of techniques and equipment.”

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