To the rescue: New Haven firefighters train in the darnedest places

NEW HAVEN — It was a “high risk, low frequency” rescue 50 feet above the blue-tiled floor as city firefighter Collin Whalen lowered a civilian to the ground, the type of tricky rescue operation firefighters regularly train for but hope they never have to perform.

About 15 firefighters, along with Whalen, of Newington, performed a series of training evolutions Friday morning at the It Adventure Indoor Ropes Course at Jordan’s Furniture, a New England chain known for packaging entertainment alongside showrooms filled with living, dining and bedroom furnishings. Two more groups will go through the training evolutions, with approximately 80 New Haven firefighters getting to practice lowering, anchoring and belaying (climber protection) skills.

“It’s a process we train for every day. It’s a rope rescue, and it’s just putting our training to actually do the job in real life, and this scenario is definitely a great training opportunity for our group,” Whalen said.

Housed in the former New Haven Register building at 40 Sargent Drive, the furniture store, which opened in December 2015, features a 150,000-square-foot retail showroom, but the 20,000-square-foot area housing the It Adventure Ropes Course, a computerized light and water display, sound system, pizza restaurant and ice cream shop is the main attraction, according to the website.

Packaged as the world’s largest indoor adventure ropes course, the website stated the elaborate blue and white ropes course includes two 60-foot-high ropes courses with four levels, zigzag swinging beams, crisscross angle rope ladders, cargo nets, bridges, plank-walking, a catwalk and a 48-foot-high free fall jump. The four 200-foot-long zip lines are 48 feet high and extend above the light and water show.

For about 30 minutes, Whalen balanced on the three-inch blue beam, making sure knots were tied correctly and properly hooking up carabiners (specialized shackles), before starting his descent with the civilian wrapped between his legs.

While Whalen has been a firefighter for three years, he has just been transferred to the squad company. He hasn’t had to perform a real-life rescue — yet. Training such as that Friday, however, prepares firefighters for the inevitable, or inevitable at least if they are assigned for any duration on one of the city’s rescue squads.

“It’s a little more of a real life scenario actually having someone outside the Fire Department be helped or assisted,” he said. “It’s just putting the training to good use, everything we’ve learned, all the classes we’ve taken, and just putting our training forward to do the job.”

Battalion Chief Frank Ricci said Whalen did a “great job” during the training evolution. He said the Fire Department generally doesn’t rappel in rescues involving height, as victims usually either freeze or panic. So the lowering operation allows the rescuer to solely focus on the victim’s condition and it increases safety for both.

He said during the lowering operation, the firefighter’s only concern is the victim. “As he’s going down, his focus is on keeping you away from obstacles, trying to protect your back. His focus is 100 percent on (the victim’s) safety,” he said.

Assistant Chief of Operations Mark Vendetto added that safety is the most important thing for the firefighters to remember - safety for themselves and safety for the public.

Ricci said partnering with Jordan’s Furniture allowed the firefighters to provide an ideal training environment as the skills the firefighters are practicing here are transferable to pretty much every rescue operation, whether it’s a hiker stuck on East Rock (350+ feet above the floor of the Mill River valley at summit) or West Rock, a worker at a construction site or a window washer off the Knights of Columbus building. They train at those locations too. Firefighters and training victims have lowered hundreds of feet from the substructure of the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge to an awaiting rescue boat and down the cliff face of East Rock.

Casey Coassin, assistant manager at the It Adventure Indoor Ropes Course, said this has been a great opportunity for the employees, since it allows them to brush up on their skills and see how rescues are done in the real world.

“They’ve given us some helpful tips on extra things we can keep on the ground and little things we can do to improve our overall atmosphere here,” she said.

Vendetto noted that the skills performed Friday translate right over to lowering somebody off the Q Bridge, which is a “very technical rescue.”

“It’s great that they’re giving us the opportunity to have indoor training [because] being in New England, with the weather, sometime our training gets limited. It’s actually giving us a great indoor, climate-controlled facility to do our training in,” he said.

While the two squad companies — one at the Whitney Station and one at the West Battalion headquarters in New Haven train every day, the firefighters perform broader training drills every month, such as preparing to rescue climbers on East Rock, for any sort of construction accident on the Q Bridge, for confined space operations in and on the barges of the Buchanan Marine, for trench rescues and for hazardous material incidents, according to Ricci.

With the unique hazards hazardous firefighters face in New Haven, Ricci said Chief John Alston, who came to New Haven from Jersey City with a rescue background, wanted to focus on ensuring the city’s squad companies were prepared for anything.

“New Haven is the busiest fire department in the state of Connecticut. Our city is very unique with a deep harbor, two significant cliffs on each side, two major highways and a railway going through,” Ricci said.

Squad members’ duties range from everyday routine operations and vehicle extrications to more complex situations — as Ricci put it: “Anything that’s out of the ordinary that doesn’t happen every day” — like confined spaces, building collapses and water rescue responses. Squad members concentrate their technical training in building construction, confined spaces, rope and rigging, water rescue operations, vehicle rescues, and rapid intervention.

“It’s critical to practice these evolutions because the skills are all technical,” Ricci said. “They’re skills you’re not going to be using every day, but when you’re called to use those skills, you don’t have time to look it up in a book. Your crew has got to be able to operate immediately, safely, efficiently, effectively.”