Rescue Squad’s New Members Learn the Ropes

Under the hot sun, dozens of sweating firefighters fiercely pounded away with jackhammers at huge blocks of concrete, while others in harnesses 50 feet above the ground attempted to save a victim.

No, this is not a disaster, but an incredible simulation of one carried out Wednesday by members of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s elite Urban Search and Rescue task force at the Disaster Preparedness Training Site in Sherman Oaks.

It wasn’t that long ago that the 180-member, federally funded task force was forced to put newly acquired skills to work in a real disaster. With only a few months of training under their belts, members of the task force responded to two of the areas most devastated by the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake--the Northridge Meadows apartments and Northridge Fashion Center. According to task force members, they came through with flying colors.

“Our performance went good considering we were in the impact area,” Fire Capt. Ronald Leydecker said. “Our training had just started to get going six months before the earthquake hit.”


Team member Tom Croell, 33, a firefighter for 14 years, said the program is necessary for disasters in an urban setting. “This is the wave of the future. We knew the earthquakes would come sooner or later, and we were prepared.”

The task force, which can be activated to respond to any disaster in the United States, conducted a two-day training program this week for 95 new team members, who volunteered to train on their day off. They worked on mobilization procedures and specialized equipment in an effort to bring the group’s newest members up to par with those who have been on the team since its inception in 1990.

A mound of concrete pilings transported from the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square parking structure served as a training area for task members learning to use a new 90-pound breaker, or jackhammer. Leydecker said trainees are advised on when to use the heavier equipment--when there are no live victims to be rescued--and when a smaller 20-pound breaker is more viable for a rescue operation.

“These tools aren’t what we normally use for firefighting,” Leydecker said. “The concept is the same, but more specialization is needed to assist victims in a tight working space.”


There are 25 federally funded search-and-rescue teams in the United States, five of them in Southern California, including Los Angeles city and Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego and Orange counties.

Most of the city team’s members are firefighters specially trained in swift-water and trench rescues. Two medical doctors, four search dogs and their handlers, and two city building and safety structural engineers are also on the team.

“We are different than (other) firefighters,” Croell said. “When we showed up out in the field, the firefighters didn’t understand our capabilities. But now that we have been out there (during the earthquake), they understand what we can do.”