Digging Into Trench Rescue Training

By Steve Hudson | September 28, 2010

Trench rescue training was in the spotlight in Georgia's Hall County recently as the Georgia Utility Contractors Association (GUCA) presented a two-day workshop focusing on trench rescue techniques.

The program, funded by a grant from the National Utility Contractors Association, was held at the Hall County Fire Training Center.

"Excavation work is recognized as one of the most hazardous construction operations," says GUCA Executive Director Vikki McReynolds, "and this training was designed to acquaint fire department personnel from several local jurisdictions with the proper techniques for carrying out a rescue following a trench collapse."

With the dangers of working in trenches and excavations becoming more apparent to construction workers, as well as to the public, the Georgia Utility Contractors Association has made it a priority to help educate and train county fire departments in trench rescue — and one result has been seminars such as this one.

Among those involved in the training were Deputy Chief Skip Heflin, Hall County Fire Services; Captain Dale Perry, Gainesville Fire Department; Captain Eric Rockfeld, Gainesville Fire Department; and Instructor Dickie Watson, Southern Rescue Specialists, Inc. In addition to the NUCA grant, sponsorship came from Southern Trenching, Inc. and H&H Insurance Services, Inc.

Discussing the Dangers

According to McReynolds, the workshop focused on all aspects of trench rescue. She noted that trench rescues are extremely dangerous and complex — not only because of the time-sensitive nature of the situation, but also because of the lack of general knowledge surrounding the proper way to approach rescue efforts — and she added that a major goal of the workshop was to make rescue personnel aware of the dangers to all concerned.

"Cave-ins are perhaps the most feared trenching hazards," McReynolds says. "But other potentially fatal hazards include asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen in a confined space, inhalation of toxic fumes, dangers from underground utilities that might have been exposed, hazards posed by nearby traffic, and even drowning. Electrocution or explosions can also occur when workers in trenches contact underground utilities."

The workshop emphasized the fact that additional accidents may result if unqualified or inadequately prepared coworkers or rescuers attempting to save the victim.

"When somebody sees his buddy down there in the trench," notes GUCA Director of Safety and Education Bradley Newcomer, "the first thing you want to do is to jump in and save him or crank up the backhoe and use it to dig him out."

But such an approach, he adds, can lead to additional injuries or fatalities.

"That's why it's so important for rescue personnel to know the proper ways to conduct a rescue," he added, "and that's what this training was all about."

Combining Classroom Training and In-Field Demonstration

More than 25 fire department personnel from Hall County, City of Gainesville Fire Department and the Gainesville Water and Sewer Department participated in the two-day course, which featured a combination of classroom training and hands-on trench rescue simulations.

During the classroom portion, the focus was on identifying and evaluating the hazards. Factors considered included the depth of the trench, the nature of the soil, and the possible presence of other dangers. Proper shoring and rescue techniques were also explored, and additional discussion underlined the importance of coordinating with other fire departments and rescue agencies to quickly locate and access any required special equipment, including shoring systems.

Day two took the workshop participants into a nearby field, where the Gainesville Public Works Department had excavated a trench for use during the demonstration portion of the workshop.

"The trench was 25 feet long, 5 feet wide, and about 12 feet deep," Newcomer says. "As it turned out, it was in really unstable material and made for a very realistic set of demonstrations."

As the workshop concluded, participants were universal in their appreciation of the training.

"Participants recognized that there was a serious need for this training," says Scott Brumbelow, GUCA's assistant executive director.

This was the sixth trench rescue workshop presented by the Georgia Utility Contractors Association.

"And as opportunities arise," notes McReynolds, "we will be offering additional trench rescue workshops around the state."

Putting Trench Rescue Theory into Practice

McReynolds notes that the importance of such training will only become more important as underground work continues.

"GUCA hopes to inform both utility contractors and fire department personnel on the proper steps to take during a trench rescue," she said, "as well as on safety precautions to follow." The training, she added, is part of the association's "all-out effort to avoid serious injuries and fatalities during trenching accidents."

"It is only through educational efforts such as this, which bridge the gap between utility contractors and fire departments, that job sites can become safer places to work."

But does the training really pay off? In this case it did — and within just a few days.

"The following Tuesday," notes Brumbelow, "there was an actual trench cave-in accident in the area. But the rescue personnel were able to put the training to use right away. They were able to get the person out safely."

For more information about GUCA and its training programs, visit