WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Firefighters and fire instructors from West Point and Newburgh performed the first phase of rope rescue training by rappelling""for the first time""off the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge June 2.

The exercise simulated the safe removal of a victim from various areas on and below the bridge, a distance of about 150 feet. The firefighters have rappelled other daunting heights such as the Gillis Field House at West Point and various hills and mountains in the community, but the bridge was a first in their rope rescue training.

They performed the training exercise under the watchful eyes of the Orange County Office of the Fire Coordinator and Special Operations, and under less than perfect conditions. Not only were there tremendous vibrations from vehicle traffic, but there was a high wind that didn’t seem to bother any of the trainees. However, the wind was a factor in the training exercise, as they had to forego the trainees rappelling to a waiting boat underneath the bridge on the Hudson River.

“There is a need for qualified personnel (for this type of rescue), and West Point has the skills and ability,” Leslie Greenwood, Deputy Fire Coordinator of Special Operations, said.

Acting West Point Fire Chief Chris Reed and Mike Reilly, fire protection service trainer, are both certified instructors in various rescue and fire operations. Last year, the Orange County Legislature approved the formation of the Orange County Technical Rescue Team and was awarded a $150,000 grant from the State of New York Department of Homeland Security to support this county-wide effort. The rappelling exercise was just the first phase in creating the Rope Rescue Division within the County’s Technical Rescue Team. The training eliminates duplications of emergency services by forming a unit that not only trains together, but works together.

Rope rescue is necessary in the community, considering the number of people who jump from the Hudson Valley bridges, including the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. The New York State Bridge Authority installed call boxes on the bridge in hopes of helping to prevent suicides.
Firefighters go through about 200 hours of training and rope rescue is not the only training they receive.

“The firefighters also train in other emergency rescue operations, such as ice rescue, small space extractions and hazardous materials,” Reilly said.

All the firefighters took their turns rappelling and some civilians did as well.

“Wow,” was all CBS News reporter Lou Young could say after he rappelled. “I’ve rappelled before, but nothing like this. The hardest thing was to let go (when coming up), but going down was easy.”

Performing the rope rescue training involved a lot of effort from a number of people, including the New York State Bridge Authority, because one lane of the bridge had to be closed to facilitate the training exercise.

“We had meetings and discussions with the NYSBA,” Reilly said. “They were all for it and we have a good partnership.”

There’s a lot involved in a rescue, especially regarding equipment and rescue with the safety of both the victim and firefighter in mind.

“There are rappel racks (that help manage descending) and they have a number of bars to weave rope through and that can be locked,” Reilly said. “This allows a firefighter to be ‘hands free’ if needed. There are pulleys and several ropes used as belt lines and safety lines for rescue.”

“The rappelling equipment must be anchored to a truck,” Reilly explained. “Once the equipment is anchored, it is always checked by someone else. In most cases, it would be a fire truck and it wouldn’t take too long to set up, as it did with this training because everything we would need would be in a trailer and be ready to go.”

The firefighters enjoyed the training and thought it was exciting and challenging.

“I’ve never rappelled off of a bridge,” West Point firefighter Austin McCarty, son of another West Point firefighter, Capt. Timothy McCarty, said. “It’s a lot like (rappelling) off of Gillis Field House, but has a different spin, especially with this wind.”

McCarty has been a West Point firefighter for nearly three years and said it was something he always wanted to do. He takes as much training as he can and has already been through ice rescue training.

“(My) dad always brought me to the firehouse and I always enjoyed it and (liked what he did),” McCarty said. “He definitely influenced me to become a firefighter.”