OKC firefighters uphold traditions, training to handle collapsed buildings
One Oklahoma City fire station prepares for the worst every day.
The firefighter crew of Fire Station 8 — The River City Gang — has the tools and training to rescue survivors from the most destructive of events.
Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Gas explosions. Terrorist attacks. Whenever disaster strikes, Fire Station 8 gets the call.
"Station 8 is going to be the technical rescue station for the city of Oklahoma City. Approximately 650 square miles, we're the heavy rescue," fire Capt. Brad Tobin said.
"That's going to encompass a dive, trench rescue, high-angle rope rescue, confined space, building collapse, structure collapse," he said.
Their assortment of tools run the gamut from sonar to concrete chainsaws.
Finding victims in tornado debris is the most common usage, but preparations have been made to free people from the rubble of a ruinous temblor after earthquake swarms in recent years.
"I think the first earthquake I experienced myself was probably about 2011, I was stationed at Station 1 downtown. It was about 10 o'clock at night the earthquake hit. I was downstairs in the watch office, and I looked out and Rescue Ladder 1, which is about a 70,000-pound piece of equipment, was rocking back and forth like a child's toy," fire Maj. Brad Smith said.
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"I thought, 'One of these days we're going to have a big one and we are going to have to use these toys,'" Smith said.
Listening for victims
A key tool in locating living, trapped victims is the Delsar life detector. Firefighters set up a string of sound sensors sensitive enough to detect even light tapping and scratching on steel beams and concrete.
"We'll set them up in a straight line. Once we get a reading on the monitor, he can tell which sensor is picking up the sound the strongest," Smith said.
"If we had a victim trapped in a void. Let's say you had a 'pancake collapse' of some type and you have a live victim and we're looking for them, if we can communicate with them, we can have them tap on concrete, an I-beam or anything like that and that noise will be picked up by these sensors," he said.
"Even if you could hear it, trying to isolate that down and focus on an area would just be logically almost impossible. Now, with the Delsar, we can move those sensors in until we're right on top of it, Tobin said.
"The survivability of the patient, I think, increases dramatically."
Firefighters also have a "search cam," with an 8-foot telescoping lens with LED lights on its end.
"We can stick that down into a dark void and search around," Smith said.
But firefighters must often first create that void.
A core drill with a 2-inch head is used to drill into the concrete and pull a cored plug from it.
"That will give us a spot to put our camera down into the hole, look around and search for our victim that way.
Rougher, tougher tools
For less delicate jobs, concrete chainsaws and pneumatic jackhammers are often the right tools.
The chainsaw is used to create relief cuts into concrete before a paddle bit on the jackhammer is used to chip away the concrete.
Firefighters don't take the hardware lightly, training at least six times a year.
They also don't only respond to fire department incidents.
"We've assisted the police department many times. They've got somebody barricaded in a house, they'll call and want our search cam to try to see around a corner," Tobin said.
Traditions built on pride
The River City Gang also has two search dogs and also are the keepers of the city's dive and water rescue equipment.
The dogs live with their handlers and train weekly to find live survivors, not cadavers.
Station 8 has a lengthy tradition in Oklahoma City, which these specialized firefighters uphold around the clock every day of every year.
"Guys want to take some pride in their equipment, in their station. Our chief has allowed us to have a logo on our rig, and The River City Gang is our logo," Tobin said.
"We're just four blocks from the river, and then the Stockyards is the reason for the bull. That's kind of the background on it. There's some old, retired firemen that started that years ago, and we've kept the tradition up," Tobin said.