Volunteer firefighters throughout the county training to establish Allamakee Rescue Team for rope rescue incidents

Learning the ropes ... Bernie Gruman (left) of the Harpers Ferry Fire Department works with Tyler Verdon (right) of the New Albin Fire Department during a Rope Rescue Training session earlier this year. Gruman has led a county-wide effort to establish the Allamakee Rescue Team specifically trained to respond to rope rescue emergencies. Photo by Scott Boylen.

Training tower ... Volunteer firefighters in Allamakee County have completed their basic Rope Rescue Training, such as from this mobile tower trailer pictured above, and are planning more advanced training this fall. Those volunteers have been sharpening their skills in preparation for establishing the Allamakee Rescue Team, a crew specifically trained to respond to emergencies involving the use of ropes in climbing, rappelling or traversing open areas. Photo by Scott Boylen.

by Kelli Boylen

With the idea of making rope rescue in the county safer and more efficient, Bernie Gruman has led an effort to establish the Allamakee Technical Rescue (ATR) team.

Gruman, a Harpers Ferry volunteer firefighter, participated in a rope rescue class in Waukon several years ago. He enjoyed the training enough that he took a refresher course at the Kirkwood Community College annual fire school last fall.

He saw the benefits of a coordinated, county-wide rope rescue team. “With the steep drop-offs on the bluffs in our county and the number of grain operations, there definitely is a need for this type of knowledge here,” he says.

Previously, several of the fire departments in the county each had some rope rescue equipment and several volunteer firefighters who had some training in it. When departments responded to situations, they used the resources they had available to them. Now, a more specifically-trained ATR team will make those responses safer and more efficient for both the rescuers and the person being helped.

“A lot of guys don’t want to be the one out there on the end of a rope because they think they are too old, out of shape or have a fear of heights,” Gruman says. “But in reality, we really only need one or two guys willing to hang from the rope, and we need more people on the other end to help with rigging, anchors, etcetera. A smooth, successful rescue can’t happen without a trained ground crew.”

In addition to asking all Allamakee County Fire Departments to be involved, Gruman also talked to Allamakee County Emergency Management and the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department to make sure they could use the County paging system to specifically have a page go out to rope rescue volunteers.

There are currently 15  volunteers coming from all six Allamakee County Fire Departments that all had the same rope rescue training offered by a professional firefighter training company. “There are as many as 45 volunteers that have expressed interest in the Team.  Now we just need to get them trained,” Gruman says.

Two trainings of about 12 hours each were set up in June and July for volunteer firefighters wanting to attend. The State Fire Service Training Bureau covered the costs of this training.

The coursework began in the classroom and included assessing the scene, how the equipment works and safety. They then transitioned to hands-on operations, including knot tying, anchoring, rigging the ropes and harnesses, rappelling, and rescue harness pick-offs.  Initial training took place at the Waukon Fire Department Training Room and the training company set up a mobile “tower” trailer for the rappelling exercises.

This was considered the first level of training, and another, more advanced training will take place in the fall. This will include more difficult scenarios including rappelling off towers and traversing across open spaces.

Gruman says the plan is for the ATR team to train regularly throughout the year to keep their skills sharp and be comfortable working with the equipment and one another. “Being able to communicate clearly when we are on scene and knowing how to react is a really important piece of this,” he says.

In addition to the advanced training, Gruman and others are working on having a comprehensive equipment plan. Harpers Ferry Fire Department has received an Allamakee County Community Foundation grant to purchase a complete set of the recommended rope rescue equipment, and the Waukon Fire Department is already well equipped. Other departments will have basic equipment that they can start getting set up if they are first on the scene before the ATR team gets there.

It is hoped that each member of the team will, in the future, have their own go-bag with harnesses and other equipment so they can respond directly to the scene when called. Gruman adds, “We will be looking to secure further grant funds and private donations to help with this aspect of the equipment plan.”

Gruman says the goal is to have the team fully equipped and ready to go sometime this winter.

To learn more about the ATR team,  Contact Bernie Gruman at 563-586-2056.

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