Twenty firefighters learned to rescue people trapped in underground trenches on Monday, as the New Haven Fire Department took another step toward becoming an all-hazards response unit.

During trench-rescue training, officers are lowered into underground trenches that may not have been supported correctly. The procedure involves a specialized group of firefighters who use skills and additional equipment that officers normally do not, Emergency Management of Deputy Director Rick Fontana said. The NHFD began training firefighters as trench-rescue technicians on Oct. 26 due to the amount of construction currently underway in the Elm City, according to NHFD Assistant Chief Mark Vendetto.

Fontana said that expansions of the I-91 highway, the I-95 highways and the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, as well as other construction occurring in New Haven, spurred the city’s decision to implement the training program.

“A lot of this type of construction begins with underground work, and if the trench is not supported, anything can happen,” Fontana said. “Having this trench training in the fire department is key for a city like New Haven.”

All 40 firefighters who are part of the special operations unit will finish trench-rescue training on Nov. 29, Vendetto said. Fontana added that the firefighters in the training program will be assigned to the specialty-apparatus and heavy-rescue squads.

NHFD Chief John Alston Jr. said that although he has only led the department for a year, he believes that the trench-rescue training was necessary because the NHFD needed a special operations branch, in part to respond to trench-rescue situations, which often occur on construction sites.

Though the NHFD has effectively operated as an all-hazards response unit for many years, Fontana said the steps the department has taken to train firefighters will prepare them to respond to a wider range of scenarios.

There are very few departments in the nation that train officers to become certified trench-rescue technicians. And most departments that administer such training programs operate in larger, more metropolitan areas.

Later in the spring, NHFD officers will complete structural-collapse training, the next step in the department’s process of developing a special-operations division.

Christina Carrafiell |