CLEMSON — When Hurricane Florence tore through the Carolinas late last year, it left in its wake masses of downed trees for first responders to deal with — not just to clear roads and bridges, but to reach those in need of rescue.
While emergency personnel constantly undergo safety training of all sorts, little of it tends to deal with safely operating chainsaws in storm rescue circumstances.
“We always try to operate with safety in mind. The Fire Academy tells us how to use power tools and how to use them safely, but cutting trees and stuff — it’s really not so much that it gets gone over,” said Roger Eagle, battalion chief at Isle of Palms Fire Department.
With that in mind, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has provided funding for a series of tree cleanup and chainsaw safety courses aimed at training hundreds of first responders and others how to properly deal with downed trees and safely manage their chainsaw use. The courses are being offered throughout South Carolina by the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service in partnership with the University of Georgia.
“This training is a direct response to Hurricane Florence,” said Cory Tanner, horticulture program team leader for Clemson Extension Service. “After that storm passed through the Carolinas, first responders encountered a lot of downed trees, and OSHA determined that it would be very valuable that these responders get better training in how to properly remove trees that are in the way and also how to safely and correctly operate chainsaws.”
OSHA first contacted Ellen Bauske, program coordinator for the UGA Center for Urban Agriculture, who has been conducting safety training with OSHA since 2005. To deliver the training, Bauske reached out to collaborators in the Carolinas.
“Clemson Extension’s role is absolutely indispensable because they can reach out and get the audience that needs to get this training,” Bauske said. “They have close relationships with their county and city people and can get the public sector out. They often work with arborists, so they know the tree care people. They can reach out to the homeowners through the Master Gardener program. They are perfectly situated to deliver the desired audience. Even more importantly, they are knowledgeable, qualified educators who can deliver the training.”
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The tree care industry is one of the top 10 most dangerous occupations in the United States — and that is even among industry professionals who deal with the work on an everyday basis. The danger level multiplies for emergency personnel who don’t regularly handle chainsaws.
“This training is critical because whenever you have a storm of that magnitude, everybody comes out with their chainsaws, including policemen, neighbors, volunteer chainsaw crews. They may know nothing about personal protective equipment,” she said. “They don’t realize how dangerous it is. They don’t know about kickback and they get hurt … struck by falling (limbs); slips and trips and falls and electrocution are extremely common accidents, especially after a storm.”
Even for an experienced emergency worker such as Eagle, whose crew participated in the course at Clemson’s Sandhill Research and Education Center (REC) near Columbia, the training was invaluable.
“The crew that was up here was a good portion of the crew that went down to Edisto Island and cleared out after Hurricane Matthew,” he said. “And these guys have a lot of experience … but I think everybody learned a lot up here going through this class.”
Eagle also noted that even for fire departments such as the one at Isle of Palms, which is often on the front line of hurricanes, the training was useful for less historic catastrophes, such as storms with high winds or tornadoes.
“We get a lot of downed trees from time to time. Now we’re not there to clean up the whole mess, but we do clear the right-of-way so people can get along with their lives,” he said. “There are so many things that you have to take into consideration when you’re cutting a tree — compression, tension — you need to have an idea of things to watch out for when you cut that tree. … I’ve been cutting trees for 40 years and I learned a lot out of this class.”
As for Clemson Extension’s role, Tanner said it fit in perfectly with Clemson’s standing as the state’s primary land-grant institution.
“Our role is to take research-based information and deliver that to the people who need it to improve their daily lives,” he said. “We already have the established research and education resources that are needed to deliver this type of training. In this case, we’re delivering training to a group of people who don’t perform this type of work in their everyday job; so police officers, firefighters, other first responders, they aren’t going out and cutting on trees every day.”
The field training itself is conducted by North American Training Solutions, the premier chainsaw safety training organization in the United States. The first Storm-Damaged Tree Cleanup Training Demonstration was held in March at Sandhill REC, with the training company setting up “storm damaged” trees the day before, then walking participants through the techniques that allow for safe removal and cleanup.
“When the emergency situation comes up and they have to be able to do that, it’s important that they have the training to know how to do that safely,” Tanner said. “It’s important to keep our emergency workers safe so that they can actually respond and arrive on scene to help people that might be affected by the storm in a safe manner. We don’t want to add to the catastrophe by having our first responders injured in the process.”