Last Thursday's Search and Rescue training was a situation in which I hope to never find myself again. Just the words "Confined Spaces" on the training schedule strike fear into the hearts of many and it is easy to tell who is claustrophobic by those who are absent. The "newbies" show up because they don't know any better and they think "how bad can it be?" Once they find out we invariably lose one or two who decide this is not their idea of fun and in fact bears little resemblance to the romantic image of SAR they had in mind. Over the years we have trained in grain silos and in caves and it is always a frustrating experience but none can compare to Thursday night's exercise. The location was the drywall plant in Cody. The situation was an injured worker who had entered a kettle to do some maintenance and had fallen. The kettles are 12' deep and not very big around. They are filled with heating ducts as well as multiple levels of huge blades that mix the gypsum dust inside. The bottom of the kettle is domed quite severely with the high spot in the center and there is no level spot. We were assured the kettle had been cleaned for our exercise but all that meant was that there was only a foot of gypsum dust on the bottom and every surface was coated with the fine white powder. There was barely room for the injured man (yes, there was a real patient) on the bottom and somehow we had to get in, assess his condition, stabilize as much as possible and get him and ourselves back out safely. We decided to try and send three people in even though it would be crowded beyond belief. It was pretty clear I was going in because 1) I am relatively skinny 2) I am strong for my size and 3) I was one of the few to show up who has some medical training. I entered the kettle first so I could get to the patient and assess his condition. To enter there is a small square opening in the top. You step down onto two steel steps at which point you have to wiggle yourself around and push your back into the wall of the kettle, using your legs against the heating ducts to worm crawl your way to the bottom. I was directly over the patient and one slip could mean a serious injury to both of us. As it was, every move I made caused fine gypsum powder to rain down on his upturned face and I was afraid I was going to smother him before he could be saved! We had been offered the option of wearing respirators inside the kettle but the temperature was about 90 degrees and it was obvious we would have a hard time breathing wearing the masks. As it was my safety glasses fogged up constantly and I had to keep trying to wipe them off so I could see. Once I examined the patient it was obvious he had a probable spinal injury and possible head injury. That suddenly made everything much more complicated as we were even more limited in how we could move him. I should point out that on every exercise there comes a point when you forget that this is not real. In this case it was about 30 seconds into it and there was no question in any of our minds that we needed to do everything just right to save this man and get him out safely. I won't bore you with the details but it took the three of us more than three hours to get him treated and packaged to a point where the rest of the team could begin to haul him out. For the entire time I was bent double, on my knees at his head, supporting his neck and back and assessing his vital signs every 15 minutes or so. After the first hour every muscle in my body was screaming for me to move but that wasn't an option and when the time finally came to stand up I wasn't sure I could. We were told gypsum dust is water soluble and totally non-toxic but I certainly haven't enjoyed coughing it up for the last few days.
The real Search and Rescue calls continue to be few and far between. We searched for a missing two year old that was found hiding in his home but the pager has been uncharacteristically quiet for months. Maybe this summer-like weather will change that.