Special operations team is there when you need them
It's not every day local fire and rescue personnel come across a man buried in corn or a hazardous Mercury spill, but when they do, they know there's help to be had in the Dakota County Special Operations Team.
The DCSOT played a big role in the Feb. 4 rescue of Feely Elevator manager Mark Malecha. They assisted at the 35W bridge collapse in 2007, and, in 2004, cleaned up a mercury spill in Rosemount.
Those kinds of large-scale rescue attempts take specialized training, dedication and cooperation. And manager Mike Pott said that's what the DCSOT is all about.
Back in early 2001, several police and fire agencies in Dakota County put together a committee to look at what it would take to have a specialized rescue group. They were working through the process, he said, when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 occurred.
"That provided a little more momentum to put something together," Pott said.
Within a couple of years, a joint powers agreement was formed and signed by Dakota County and 11 of the larger cities in the county. That group established the Dakota County Domestic Preparedness Committee, with a representative from each of the cities serving on the committee.
The Special Operations Team is the product of that committee. With 36 members at any given time, the SOT is made up of police, fire and EMT personnel from the participating cities and Dakota County. The representation changes occasionally, Pott said - some members leave and new ones come on or one city may have more personnel assigned than another - but the team meets to train monthly, all the same.
The majority of the funding for the Dakota County SOT has come through a Homeland Security grant, but the annual budget is also supported financially by the member cities. Each city's contribution is determined by population, Pott said.
The National Fire Protection Association lays out a certain set of requirements for groups like the SOT. Each member is required to reach the FNPA's highest level of training in rope rescue, confined space rescue, trench collapse rescue, structural collapse, hazardous materials and terrorism and weapons of mass destruction responses.
"You need to be at that level to be going up on the ropes or down in the trench or that sort of thing," Pott said.
That means intense training. At first, the DCSOT brought in instructors from around the nation who specialized in each of the NFPA's requirements. They gave the DCSOT members their minimum training. In this case, "minimum" means 300 hours of training.
Each month, the group meets in a different location to train for a different kind of event. It's necessary, because the kinds of things the SOT comes up on varies every time they're called out. And if the SOT is called out, chances are it's for a good reason.
"When we're called out, it's not for an instance that occurs frequently, but they do occur occasionally. It's a low frequency, but a high impact event," Pott said.
Each situation is different, and must be handled as such. Even similar incidents at different times of year could be handled differently, simply because weather plays a role. For instance, had Feely Elevator employee Malecha gotten stuck in a silo in July, when the corn was not semi-frozen, it would have likely flowed differently than it did in early February.
"You have basic skills and concepts, but until you get to each individual scene, you don't know what you're dealing with," Pott said.
Pott credited Farmington's first responders for the way they were able to assess the situation at the elevator and not rush in to try to pull Malecha from the grain right away.
The rescue was time consuming - Malecha was in the grain bin for eight hours before he was pulled to safety - but that's because the Dakota County Special Operations Team, with the help of Minnesota Task Force One, had to carefully build a barricade around him, then dig him out.
"It seems slow in progressing. A lot of times, the incident seems simpler than it is. Sometimes bystanders get a little frustrated, and sometimes we'd like (the rescues) to go a little faster, too, but we also want them to be successful," Pott said. "It has to have a methodical approach to it."
Task Force One
The Dakota County SOT is part of the bigger, statewide rescue group known as Task Force One. DCSOT is one of five sponsoring agencies. The others are Minneapolis Fire, St. Paul Fire, Edina Fire and Rochester Fire.
Task Force One was created within six months of the SOT, and now operates as a regional and statewide specialized fire/rescue organization. TF1 members have a little more specialized training in collapsed structure rescue.