A team from Hempshire, UK, uses the "jaws of life" to cut a roof pillar, removing metal from around the dummy accident victim before extricating it from the wreckage. Another team member enters the vehicle to stabilize, treat and protect the victim from debris.
CLEARWATER - Fourteen teams of specially trained rescuers competed last weekend in the 2007 edition of the Florida Regional Extrication Challenge, organized by the Suncoast Extrication Coalition. While most of the teams call Florida home, two from the United Kingdom, Hempshire North and South, and one from Roanoke, Virginia, took part.
Local entrants included Largo, Palm Harbor, Pinellas Park and Seminole. Clearwater did not participate because of the resources required to host the event, including making its heavy extrication Squad 49 equipment available for the other teams to use.
The event, held at Clearwater's downtown waterfront below the Harborview Center, determined the top two overall teams that would advance to the 2008 National Competition.
Each team conducted two extrications, "limited", using primarily hand tools with no hydraulics, and "unlimited", using state of the art hydraulic tools including the "jaws of life" pictured above, capable of cutting forces of as much as 157,000 pounds.
Judges evaluated each teams technique and communications as well as timing the extrication. The units strove to minimize the time it took for the extrication, saving precious minutes of the "golden hour" for delivering the victim to a hospital, and increasing his chances of survival.
The competition took on the form of team versus clock, not team versus team. As each unit completed their extrication, they were greeted by the hearty applause of their competitors in appreciation of their efforts.
For the record, Seminole won the overall competition, with Palm Harbor taking second and West Palm Beach finishing third. The Best Medic award was won by West Palm Beach, and Best Incident Commander was awarded to Seminole's Lt. Tom Winkler.
But as the competition progressed through the sunny weekend, a dark cloud hovered in the background. The property tax reform measures planned by the Florida Legislature will reduce municipal budgets, threatening the continued operation of the heavy extrication units involved in the event, including Clearwater's Squad 49.
The elimination of Squad 49 was included among the budget cuts proposed by Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne earlier this month. The savings from shuttering Squad 49 would total $695,440 annually, and involve a reduction of 7 fire/rescue employees. Squad 49's tools, equipment and specially-trained personnel would be dispersed among Clearwater Fire Rescue's other units, but that would likely increase response times according to Fire Chief Jamie Geer.
"Longer response times mean lives will be lost," said Councilmember Paul Gibson during the April 27th budget workshop, "I'm not comfortable with this."
Nor were his colleagues. The City Council pulled Squad 49 off the list of cuts necessary to achieve a $7.5-million city budget reduction during their May 3rd meeting. But if the state imposes a tax structure that goes beyond the budget reductions already planned, Squad 49 will likely be included in the second round of cuts.
Will the extrication capabilities displayed by the rescue units involved in last week's competition continue to serve the public, or will they serve only as a demonstration of what might have been possible had municipal budgets not been so severely cut? The answer will come from the tax decisions of the state legislature in June, and the budget decisions that will later be made by the City of Clearwater and other municipalities.