TAMPA — Be it a dump truck careening into the Alafia River, a construction worker trapped in a trench in Sun City or a sailor injured in the engine room of a ship in the Port of Tampa, firefighters are asked to do a lot more these days than dousing flames and getting cats out of trees.
Every call for help is different, and every call for the special operations unit of the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue is really different.
The unit has 120 members, each a certified firefighter and paramedic and each looking for something that calls for more than the routine set of skills.
“You get to the point in your fire career where you want more than just fighting fires and doing run-of-the-mill things,” said firefighter/paramedic Mike Miller, 34, who has been on the team for six years. “Special operations offers that. There are rope rescues, trench rescues, structural collapses.”
Each time the unit is called out, a different — and sometimes never utilized — strategy is employed, he said.
The calls often present dangers and risks.
“There is nothing we take lightly,” Miller said. “We put our lives on the line, but we train very hard to prepare as much as possible for any situation we encounter. We train every shift.”
A flurry of unusual, high profile rescues in the county have highlighted the skills of the team in the last few months:
* On Sept. 11, county fire-rescue crews pulled an injured man from the cramped engine room of a ship at the Port of Tampa. He had fallen from a set of stairs; it took rescue crews two hours to get him out safely. The effort required expertise with ropes and pulleys to get him up to the deck. The man was not seriously injured.
* On Nov. 12, a dump truck careened out of control and splashed into the Alafia River, trapping the driver inside the cab with water up to his neck.
The county’s heavy rescue and marine units were able to rescue him, all the time keeping his head above water. The driver was treated at the hospital for minor injuries.
* On Nov. 14, a construction worker fell in a trench while working on water pipes in Sun City. The injured man lay inside the narrow trench, which was about 20 feet deep. Heavy rescue crews were called and, using a line suspended from a ladder truck, managed to get to the man and pull him to safety without the walls collapsing. The rescue took about a half-hour; the victim was hospitalized but was not seriously injured.
Among the types of calls the special operations unit responds to are rescues in confined spaces, structural collapses and swift moving water, extrications from vehicles and structures, trench cave-ins and wilderness searches.
Each call results in a quick collaboration of team members at the scene discussing the best way to proceed, said Capt. Clint Roberts, commander of the unit.
“It’s a collective event,” he said. “Everyone is involved and we discuss how to do it safer.”
Decisions must be made in a matter of moments, he said.
“I tell them, ‘When you step off that truck, you have 30 seconds to make a decision to save a life or end your own,’” he said.
The unit’s members, who get an extra $75 a paycheck for being on the team, are experts at innovation, he said.
“They are the MacGyver types,” Roberts said, “guys who can take a butter knife and a pair of pliers and re-rig a satellite dish. The challenge here is to overcome the situation with limited resources.
“The guys have specialties,” he said. “Some have expertise with metals, some with machinery, others with carpentry.
Special circumstances often require special training,” he said.
“The easiest way to explain it is, say you have doctor, a family practice doctor,” he said. “He can handle 90 percent of what you come in with. But there are times you need a specialist, and that’s what special operations is; instances that call for above and beyond the normal scope of training.
Specialized equipment is a big part of the unit, he said.
“We have plasma cutters and equipment that allows us to go underwater,” Roberts said. “We have equipment to shore up a building if it is about to collapse. All that equipment requires special training and we all are certified. There is a lot of training and it’s continuous, it’s ongoing. The unit trains every day, every single day of the week, sometimes at night.”
Most of the training is done in house, he said, and firefighters from across the state come here to train as well. As long as they cover their own travel expenses and are insured, the classes are free. Roberts and a few others on the team are master instructors and travel around the state to teach firefighters in other departments the skills needed to operate equipment and handle most situations.
Of all the off-the-wall calls the unit has responded to over the past five years, nothing compares to the tree rescue in east Hillsborough County in 2008, Roberts and Miller agreed.
A 15-year-old boy was climbing an oak in a county park and slipped. He became wedged between two branches.
“It might sound funny,” Roberts said, “but that kid struck in a tree in Brandon, nobody knows how close he came to dying.”
The rescue took 3 1/2 hours, and there were times when firefighters thought the boy might die.
If he had slipped farther into the wedge, the boy’s breathing and blood flow could have been constricted. He lost consciousness once and was hooked up while in the tree to oxygen and intravenous fluids as firefighters worked to pull him to safety. Pressure on the limbs would pinch the teen so rescuers had to be careful.
After a good amount of chipping and chiseling by rescuers who also coated the youth’s body with lubricant, the boy was freed.
“It was a unique call that just didn’t fall into what we normally would do,” Roberts said. “We had to step back and think about how to attack this.”
That and all the other rescues get incorporated into the ongoing training program, he said, so that when the alarms go off, the unit is that much more prepared.
“Every day,” he said, “they come in and say, ‘What you got for us now, cap?’”