Orange County Emergency Services and Orange Rural Fire Department have partnered to purchase equipment to be used for trench rescues, filling a gap in local rescue capabilities.
“Nobody in the county currently has the ability to respond to a trench rescue and go into a trench to get people out,” said Orange Rural Fire Chief Jeff Cabe. “Fortunately, we live in an area with a lot of clay so they don’t happen a lot, but when the call comes, you have to respond.”
A trench is defined as being deeper than it is wide. Whenever a contractor digs a trench more than four feet into the ground, to bury cable or for other reasons, they are required to construct a trench box to protect personnel working in the trench.
Even so, collapses occur. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about 25 people die per year in trench-related accidents.
Rescues are difficult and require specific equipment and expertise, Cabe said. In addition, because quickly moving tons of dirt and debris is labor intensive, a large team of responders is needed so workers can rotate to avoid undue stress.
The idea took root after a tragedy. Orange Rural Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Holden died in 2018 following a trench rescue effort in the Efland District.
“Along that time I started having conversations with (Orange County Emergency Services Director) Kirby Saunders, saying we’ve got gaps in coverage and we probably ought to try to figure out how to address them on a countywide basis,” Cabe said.
Saunders, who was then Orange County’s Emergency Services Coordinator, jumped on board. His department requested $25,000 in funding from the county, which the Orange County Board of Commissioners approved.
“The Board of County Commissioner’s support of this project has helped to strengthen response capabilities for Orange County, meaning a safer and more prepared environment for residents and responders,” said Sarah Pickhardt, Orange County Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator.
Orange Rural is picking up the remaining costs and will pay for annual upkeep and maintenance costs, Cabe said.
Even though Orange County and Orange Rural are absorbing all costs, the partnership will allow it to be deployed anywhere within the county. Orange Rural plans to host a training session in June for first responders from other departments.
Cabe said his goal is to have trained personnel in every county department who can respond during a trench rescue. With trained responders spread throughout the county, Cabe said a technician could arrive onsite quickly to assess the situation and form a plan before the equipment arrived.
“The idea is that everybody responds countywide,” Cabe said. “At any given time, we would have the ability to get 20 or more on scene.”
“We are tremendously proud and appreciative of the partnerships countywide that have made this initiative a success,” said Pickhardt. “We want to recognize and thank the fire departments countywide for their support of the project and providing response personnel to serve as members of this team. A big thank you, of course, goes to Orange Rural Fire for their leadership and partnership on this initiative.”
Cabe said that once the program is in place, they could respond to calls from neighboring counties. He also wants to expand the program to include structural collapses and heavy vehicle incidents.
“We plan to continue building this capability,” Cabe said. “Hillsborough is seeing a large boom in houses now. We could end up with a construction collapse. This will allow some of the gaps in coverage throughout the county to be covered.”