Burton firefighters recall with a mixture of pride and dread a surprise training exercise in July 2011.
Dressed in full gear -- on one of the hottest days of summer -- they were instructed by Assistant Fire Chief Randy Wells to trudge about 200 yards into thick woods.
A tornado had struck, he told them, and they had to search for survivors.
The woods were too dense for helicopter crews to help, he said, and the nearest ambulance was 30 minutes away. All communication services were down.
Never miss a local story.
Five groups of firefighters took turns "rescuing" mannequins from the simulated disaster. They used their emergency medical training on each mannequin and responded to Wells' announcements of "victims" having heart attacks, needing resuscitation or experiencing other medical problems.
"Chief Wells made it as difficult as possible, but as realistic as possible," Lt. Paramediccq Tradd Mills said.
Based on the Joplin, Mo., tornado disaster of 2011, the training was one of many of Wells' exercises that Burton Fire District personnel not-so-affectionately refer to as "gauntlet drills," because they know Wells will throw down the challenge of difficult training.
"He loves to sneak them up on you," Mills said. "You're never prepared. Sometimes you think you're going to watch a PowerPoint for training, and the next thing you know, you're in a gauntlet drill."
The drills are geared toward emergency medical technicians, and are separate from firefighter training. Basic EMT skills are required of Burton firefighters, Wells said, and he makes sure they're ready.
"I can be kind of hard on them," Wells admits.
"Yeah, you can be," interrupts Lt. Paramedic John Ireland, smiling at Wells. "He's relentless on exams."
Wells' written tests are never multiple choice, and everything, including complex medication names, must be spelled correctly.
"I want to affect their thinking, and I want them to be thinking all the time," Wells said.
Standing more than 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and light-colored, closely cropped hair, Wells' brow furrows when talking about his district's emergency response services, but he also smiles easily.
He speaks gently and deliberately, in a voice that has calmed fire victims and emergency patients for nearly 20 years -- the first 10 years with the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division, and nearly 10 more with the Burton district.
Wells' strategy is to make training as intense as possible so firefighters are ready for the worst-case scenario and can more easily handle live calls.
"I want them to understand that when someone calls 911, they're asking us to manage an emergency for them," he said. "They're past the point where they can help themselves."
Dan Byrne, a paramedic and district spokesman, said his first gauntlet drill was rescuing a mannequin from beneath an abandoned house. The scenario: A floor had collapsed on a contractor.
Eager to show off his skills in a high-pressured situation, Byrne -- despite his years of experience as both a firefighter and paramedic -- said he still made small mistakes.
But Wells, he said, didn't interrupt.
"Instead of sitting there and lecturing, 'Do this, don't do that,' he has this uncanny ability to make you come to the same conclusion," Byrne said. "He teaches you to learn the lesson on your own."