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How would emergency personnel rescue an injured welder from the bottom of a diffuser tower of the Western Sugar plant?

“It’s technical and slow,” said Billings Fire Department Battalion Chief Dave Gilbert.

The rescue would require firefighters from several engine companies, loads of belaying ropes and harnesses, specialized tripod equipment and bottled oxygen, in addition to normal first-aid equipment.

Billings firefighters on Thursday practiced those techniques in case of such an emergency.

Most firefighters are required to attend the training, because there is a chance that any one of the stations could be called upon to help rescue someone from a confined space in a town like Billings that has a lot industrial jobs.

“We need to train on these with all our teams, because we need a lot of manpower,” Gilbert said. “This could be any industrialized factory.”

Thursday’s test victim was a young firefighter named Robb Gersbach.

The machine housed in the tower is a cylinder within a cylinder and is rotated with four large electric motors.

A set of fins lining the walls between the cylinders force shredded sugar beets upward in 150-degree water, extracting the sucrose, which is eventually refined into sugar.

Hoisting Gersbach on a backboard through two misaligned manholes took 13 firefighters several hours to accomplish.

Tag O’Donnell, a firefighter from Station 6 in the Billings Heights, descended into the machinery and helped hoist Hersbach out.

Walking through the maze of floors and climbing the stairs to the tower before exercises started, O’Donnell was amazed at the scale of the building. “It’s big,” he said. “It seems to have a lot of moving parts.”

The training firefighters get from practice in places such as Western Sugar is invaluable because the next time they climb those stairs it could be “in the middle of the night, on an emergency,” he said.

These exercises are carried out regularly and the location changes each time, said BFD Training Officer Matt Hoppel.

The sugar refinery was not chosen specifically because of a January incident in Lovell, Wyo., in which a woman died in a machine that shreds sugar beets, but because being in a place like the refinery provides the right conditions for a rope rescue.

“We try to identify high-hazard areas within the city,” Hoppel said. “We call it pre-planning.”

The Billings Fire Department doesn’t have too many calls for industrial accidents in Billings, Gilbert said.

“We’re very fortunate that we don’t have a lot of calls like these,” Gilbert said. “Because the companies that run the factory are very safety conscious.”



Chris Cioffi covers city news for The Billings Gazette in Montana.