NEW PALESTINE — Federally trained search-and-rescue teams spent the week in Hancock County helping local first-responders perfect techniques needed to safely free someone from a crumbled building.

Members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, disaster-response team visited Hancock County for the first time recently to teach 30 firefighters from two local departments about the search-and-rescue skills they’ve used to save lives across the nation, officials said.

Using the ruins of an abandoned New Palestine home as their classroom, four representatives from Indiana Task Force 1 — an Indianapolis-based FEMA-trained emergency-response team that deploys to cities across the country after tragedy strikes — taught a week-long lesson to members of the Hancock County Technical Rescue Team.

The local rescue team is made up of officers from the Greenfield Fire Territory and Sugar Creek Township Fire Department; its members are trained to rescue victims from inside collapsed structures or other confined spaces.

Members of Indiana Task Force 1 are the leading experts in the state on how to complete such a rescue effort, said James Wolsiffer, a member of the task force that helped conduct this week’s training.

Because the task force is run by FEMA, its members are ready to deploy to disaster sites across the country with short notice. They’ve visited cities damaged by hurricanes and tornadoes and even helped search Ground Zero in New York City days after 9/11.

The lessons marked the first time local firefighters participated in training that focused solely on how to rescue someone from a damaged structure. While all firefighters are taught to recognize when a building is unsafe to enter, only members of the technical rescue have the skills needed to safely find a resident trapped inside, officials said.

Those who participated in the training this week learned how to maneuver through a falling building safely; where to build and place joists to stabilize a falling structure; and tricks for moving thousand-pound piles of rubble or slabs of concrete with ease, Wolsiffer said.

Each scenario aimed to test firefighters’ resourcefulness, strength and teamwork, he said. On the final day of training, they put the skills they learned to the test as they searched for five dummies inside a collapsed home, which was donated to the Sugar Creek Fire Department by the property owner.

Having firefighters who are specially trained in search and rescue is an important asset for the community, said Greenfield Fire Territory Chief James Roberts.

Before Greenfield and Sugar Creek came together to form the Hancock County Technical Rescue Team in 2009, local officials had to rely on departments from neighboring counties to assist when, for example, a vehicle struck a home or a particularly nasty storm damaged a building, Roberts said. Those partnerships were valuable but resulted in a time delay, he said.

Now, at least six firefighters between the two departments from the local technical team are on duty at all times, officials said. This ensures experts are always on hand, no matter what emergency is called in.

Though the technical team isn’t called out often, it’s important for members to stay sharp, Roberts said. The teams conducts quarterly training of various rescue procedures, and he’s pleased FEMA was able to assist with such an essential lesson.

“We can’t just fight fires,” Roberts said. “Every week, it’s something new, and we always have to be ready.”

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or