Superior firefighters hone rescue skills at Fraser Shipyards

Ship setting offers confined space training for firefighters
Superior firefighters work to enter a small hole in a hallway onboard the Edward L. Ryerson to save a person during a training exercise at Fraser Shipyards on Thursday morning, May 13, 2021. The firefighters have been studying confined spaces rescue and were given the opportunity to use some of the techniques they’ve been learning about. (Jed Carlson /
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Superior fire engines converged on Fraser Shipyards on Thursday, May 13. They were answering a call for a worker, “Fred,” who had fallen into a space between the hulls below the waterline of the Edward L. Ryerson.

The training scenario, set up in conjunction with First Strike Safety Solutions of Duluth, gave the firefighters a chance to work through their confined spaces rescue tactics in a realistic setting.

Confined spaces rescues are rare, but training is crucial.

“The potential for life safety is extremely high,” said Battalion Chief Camron Vollbrecht, and there have been confined spaces fatalities in the city.

A potential rescue situation could occur nearly any day in Superior, he said, and the department has performed a number of technical rescues from ships over the years, using a rope system to lift up victims.

Superior firefighters board the Edward L. Ryerson to take air quality samples during a training exercise at Fraser Shipyards on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Jed Carlson /

“It’s not something that happens very often, but it is a really high-risk activity for us and it’s a diminishable skill, so we have to be very good at what we’re doing when we go to this situation,” Vollbrecht said.

Firefighters had to carry gear in through a tight passage Thursday. A team was sent crawling in through an opening in the wall, around a number of corners. They sent back requests for lights and various equipment needed to pull up “Fred” from where he’d fallen.

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In the morning scenario, Capt. Steve Miner was in charge of the operation. He gave radio reports to Vollbrecht — something that required walking all the way to the ship’s gangplank to get a signal out — and tasks to fellow crew members. They monitored the air quality where “Fred” had fallen, as flammable vapors, hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide can pool in lower areas. How to get the victim out at a right angle through a small hole in the wall was something they had to figure out on the spot.
Superior firefighters huddle as they go over who is doing what in a small hallway on board the Edward L. Ryerson during a confined spaces training exercise at Fraser Shipyards on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Jed Carlson /


The training was a refresher for many, but it also gave new firefighters a chance to hone these essential skills. Vollbrecth said half the firefighters have been with the department five years or less. First Strike instructors provided in-class training one day, then took firefighters to Fraser Shipyards to put what they learned into action.

“It’s not only doing the training, it’s doing it in realistic scenarios in places where we would actually go to a confined space call,” Vollbrecht said. “Not just doing it at headquarters at a box, or in a culvert, but actually getting into a facility where access becomes an issue, not just the confined space. As you see here we have to go up stairs, down stairs inside a ship; it’s dark inside there, the guys are asking for additional lighting.”

Three engines responded, but one was soon dispatched to a medical call.
Superior firefighters are lit by a worklight as they put on harnesses on board the Edward L. Ryerson at Fraser Shipyards on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Jed Carlson /

“This is the reality of what we do really,” Vollbrecht said. “With as many medical calls as we run, it’s not a guarantee we’ll have three engines available. So we have enough to work safely; we’ll keep going.”

Training took place Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at Fraser Shipyards so all the crews could participate. Vollbrecht said the department plans to set up additional training at Enbridge and potentially General Mills, familiarizing firefighters with those facilities.

“The challenges over there may be different than the challenges here in a ship, that are different then the challenges somewhere else,” Vollbrecht said. “We try to train in places where we’re going to be.”

Superior firefighters carry equipment onboard the Edward L. Ryerson during a confined spaces training exercise at Fraser Shipyards on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Jed Carlson /
Battalion Chief Cam Vollbrecht gets updates by radio as his crews work to rescue a patient on board the Edward L. Ryerson during a confined spaces training exercise at Fraser Shipyards on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Jed Carlson /
Superior Fire Department’s Engine 1 stages outside of the Edward L. Ryerson during a confined spaces training exercise at Fraser Shipyards on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (Jed Carlson /

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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