ROCKPORT — Rockport resident William "Billy" Smith is both a Rockland Police officer and a Rockport firefighter, but today he is a patient at Pen Bay Medical Center, laid up in bed with fractures of his L3 and L4 (lumbar) spine.
Smith was participating in the second day of last week's multi-town Rapid Intervention Team training, when his foot became caught up as he was making a controlled descent through a hole in the ceiling to the room below. The maneuver is part of the Rochester Drill, which deals with firefighters falling through and becoming stuck between floors, or becoming trapped between floors.
During the drill, Rockport Fire Chief Jason Peasley said that Smith's group was given the scenario of being trapped on a second floor, after the stairs had burned and/or become impassable. They had to lower themselves down through a hole in the upper floor, to the first floor below.
Loaded down with 40-50 pounds of firefighting gear, and holding on to a charged line (hose) that acted like a rope to help him make the descent, Smith was unable to hold on while he worked to free his foot and lost his grip.
Smith fell about 4-feet, and landed flat on the floor below, on his back. Unfortunately, he was wearing an SCBA air pack at the time of the landing, and the cylindrical tank and the metal frame it connects to were between his back and the wood floor.
"According to the instructors, he did everything correct, everything was by the book," said Peasley. "We had done the prior work and watched the videos, practiced the maneuvers and it was a freak accident."
Peasley said that smith, "happened to land in the worst way."
"Two other firefighters also fell, but they both landed on their sides and were able to walk away uninjured," said Peasley. “Training is for learning, and that’s what we did this weekend.”
In fact, Peasley learned the Camden Fire Department was going to be undergoing the same training Monday night, and they now plan to put down padding in case anyone falls.
“They’re calling it the Billy Pad,” said Peasley. “But the reality is, the training doesn’t call for one, but now we know we want to use padding when we can, because Billy’s fall happened so fast the nearby instructors couldn’t get there fast enough to prevent it.”
The two-day RIT training included 33 firefighters from the towns of Lincolnville, Camden, Hope, Rockport, Rockland, Cushing, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Friendship. The first day of training was Dec. 2, and included a slide presentation, history of the need for the RIT, the work done by RITs, gear needed, responsibilities and what they are allowed to do.
Peasley said this is the first time a multi-town RIT training course had been conducted, and it's the hope that each town will have at least a few members trained specifically for RIT work when there is a major event and need for mutual aid.
"Sometimes it's the best of the best firefighters that take this training, they are the best with ropes and knots, special tools, tricky situations, speed and efficiency, " said Peasley. "Any type of major incident you have, you are working together as three, four possibly five towns at a structure fire. Most towns don't work on structures fires be themselves. So you need to be able to work with other towns and this does that."
The second half of that Tuesday night class was hands-on, including practicing with equipment, tools and techniques. They basically learned how to prep someone to be taken out of a building, said Peasley, whether it's converting an air pack into a harness, or putting someone into a harness, practicing carries, using tools for dragging, and making litters out of poles and rope.
"A RIT team is there for an emergency response, when you have someone go down," said Peasely. "That team basically stands next to the incident commander, and they stay there the entire time. They may not get to go in and play at all, but if anything goes wrong, they are standing right there, they have a RIT bag, an extra bottle of air, ropes, tools and all the stuff they need to go in, and that is their only mission, to save a life."
For this week's training, everybody was learning all the techniques and about the tools, etc. Peasley said that it's unrealistic in the Midcoast to think you'll have the same group of firefighters show up to a call, and to train some of them for RIT work. So by training everybody, a small RIT group can be designated at any given fire scene, no matter who is able to be there to help out.
And as for the job itself, Peasley said that it not only requires good knowledge of ropes and knots and being able to change out air packs quickly, but also physical ability.
"Depending on how rapidly something is going down, you need to make a decision whether it's just 'scoop and go' or taking time to put on a proper harness," said Peasley. "And being able to carry 200 pounds of dead weight requires a lot of physical exertion, as well as training in good techniques to get it done."
Saturday's live training took place in Searsmont on Route 105, in a to-be demolished house across from the Searsmont Community Center. The house was owned by Robbins Lumber, donated and prepared for training. After Saturday’s indoor training, the building was burned to the ground in a controlled fire.
The RIT training started Saturday at 8 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m., said Peasley and it continued without incident after Smith was injured.
After Smith fell, Peasley said his gear was removed to make him more comfortable, and he was assessed by the trainers from Bangor Fire Department.
"He wanted to get up, but they kept telling him to stay down," said Peasley. "He did eventually stand up and was uncomfortable, and I took him out to my truck. Very quickly though, he was in agonizing pain. He refused an ambulance, so I took him in my truck to Pen Bay."
Once at the hospital, Peasley said it took about four people to remove Smith from the truck, as his body was locked in pain and shock.
From his hospital room Monday morning, Smith confirmed Peasley's details.
"It was excruciating pain," said Smith. "I was yelling and crying, it was so bad."
Now, Smith said in addition to the pain he's battling, he's dealing with the realization of his injuries, which are compounded by what he’s already living with on a daily basis.
Two years ago, Smith learned he had a brain tumor. Among the initial symptoms, it caused him severe headaches, and then started messing with his vision. He underwent extensive testing and radiation therapy in Maine hospitals and at out-of-state renowned medical centers, and while the tumor is considered benign, it still sits inside his skull, behind one of his eyes.
Today, while the brain tumor is stable and he suffers bouts of double vision and other side effects, he is trying hard to consider himself lucky.
Nov. 30, a video of Smith sledding with local kids while he was on patrol in Rockland went viral on the Internet. Last Wednesday, his kids had a two-hour delay in the start of school, so they videotaped their dance-off outside in the slush.
"Today, I'm here with a broken back. Unbelievable," said Smith.
Smith said he learned earlier in the day Monday that he would soon be fitted for a back brace, and spend six to eight weeks in it while his fractures healed. So far, there is no talk of a need for surgery.
"We were such great training this weekend, the Bangor guys were so great to work with," said. "I feel so bad that I got hurt, but it shows that our profession is dangerous. If this can happen in a controlled environment, where there's no actual pressure to save your life or someone else's and you can go slowly and take your time to do it right, bad things can still happen."
For now, Smith is trying to take it day by day. Keep his spirits up, be patient while the doctors work to find a way to manage his pain, try to make sure his wife and kids are being taken care of.
But try to get that through the head of a police officer, firefighter, husband and dad. The doer, not the person who has things done for him.
"It blows. I feel bad. But there is nothing I can do right now and that's the hardest part," said Smith.