In August 2018, Jeff Holden, Orange Rural’s then-assistant fire chief
, answered a trench rescue call. Holden and another Orange Rural firefighter entered a trench on West Ten Road in Efland and successfully rescued a trapped construction worker. Later that day, Holden was found unresponsive at Hillsborough’s main fire station. An autopsy revealed heart disease and high blood pressure could have contributed to his death.

Trench rescue is one of the most challenging and fatal rescue operations for emergency responders. The process involves shoring up the sides of a trench to dig out individuals who have become trapped in a collapsed ditch. 

Following Holden’s death, Orange Rural fire chief Jeff Cabe was moved to take action to reduce the likelihood of trench collapse-related injuries. So, he reached out to the county’s emergency services director, Kirby Saunders, to address gaps in rescue coverage and funding. 

This month, Orange County Emergency Services and Orange Rural Fire Department partnered up to buy equipment that officials hope will make trench rescue safer for their workers.  

“Nobody in the county currently has the ability to respond to a trench rescue and go into a trench to get people out,” Cabe said in a press release.  “Fortunately, we live in an area with a lot of clay so they don’t happen a lot, but when the call comes, you have to respond.”

Contractors must construct trench boxes to protect workers if they dig trenches more than four feet into the ground. Despite these efforts, collapses still occur.

Rescuing people from trench collapses is a difficult and complicated process. Cabe says it requires specific equipment and a large team of responders who have to rotate due to the labor-intensive nature of moving dirt and debris. 

Through the partnership, the agencies purchased coated birch plywood panels that hold dirt back during trench collapse and air shores, or pneumatic cylinders, which hold the panels in place. They also attached a laminated veneer lumber beam to the plywood panels for additional support. 

Trench collapse is a high-risk, low-frequency event, says Cabe, which makes it a low priority when budgets are tight. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about 25 people die annually in trench-related accidents.

Trench collapse rescue equipment costs thousands of dollars, may not ever even be used, and has to be replaced every two to four years. Although the county has experienced a few trench collapses in previous years, Cabe says ORFD was not dispatched since they did not have the tools to respond. 

Even though OCES and ORFD are absorbing all costs, the equipment can be deployed anywhere in Orange County. ORFD plans to host training sessions in June for first responders from other departments, Cabe says. This would help Cabe work toward his goal of ensuring that every county department has personnel that is trained and able to respond during a trench rescue. 

Trench collapse may become a more frequent occurrence as development increases and more popular municipalities, such as Chapel Hill, Durham, and Chatham, raise rent and mortgage prices amid high demand. 

The trend will likely continue as big tech companies like Google and Apple open offices in the area. With the increased demand comes a higher cost of living that pushes people to live in cheaper areas like Hillsborough. 

“Developers are going to try to meet that demand. And when they meet that demand, they’ll buy 100 acres of land and try to build houses on it,” Cabe says. “And when they need to put in 97 houses on 100 acres of land, they might have to take down this hilltop off this one side of the property and raise up this low place on the other side of the property.”

Leveling dirt to support the weight of a house can cause the land to shift around, eventually leading to trench collapse. Water, sewage, and internet systems, which typically have to run underground, can also contribute to this effect. 

“If there’s any kind of fault lines that happen to move, or if there’s underground water, or during a 100-year flood, water rises, it causes the ground to get soft,” says Cabe. “And these buildings that have been built in these places could potentially fall.” 

At 11.1 percent, Orange County’s growth rate during the past decade was just over one point higher than the state average, according to Carolina Demography. The most recent data shows that Hillsborough, which is serviced by ORFD, is the county’s fastest growing municipality. 

ORFD covered around half the equipment costs via tax revenues and will pay for annual upkeep and maintenance, Cabe says. OCES contributed the  remaining $25,000.

ORFD’s approximately $1,500,000 budget is the highest in the county, according to Orange County’s budget from last year, almost double the size of the next highest fire district budget in the county, which has 12 in total. Officials told the INDY this is because ORFD employs the largest number of full time firefighters outside of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and covers both a rural district and the Town of Hillsborough. 

The new equipment will also help rescue individuals involved in heavy vehicle incidents, such as those including containers or tractor trailers. Cabe said his department has seen a dozen tractor-involved incidents since the year’s start. 

Jeff Holden, the Orange Rural firefighter who died in the line of the duty, is remembered fondly by his colleagues. 

“He cared deeply for his brothers and sisters in the fire family and in other arms of emergency service,” his family said in a statement. 

This new equipment will be part of Holden’s legacy, with the potential to save lives. 

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