Labor of Love : Maurice, founder of "GRIMP" search and rescue team in Belgium

Portrait Maurice LevauxMaurice Levaux, 57 years old, is head of GRIMP, the hazardous environment search and rescue group in Aywaille, Belgium ("grimpe" is another word for "climbing" in French thus the acronym). GRIMP's creation and history are closely linked to a recent event. In 1997, during a club outing at the Sy/Ourthe cliff, one of Maurice's close friends was involved in an accident. Unfortunately at the time no local emergency services team was equipped nor trained to handle such a rescue and his friend died.

Deeply affected by this tragic accident, Maurice decided to create a hazardous environment search and rescue team in Belgium. He joined the local fire department, trained and passed all the requisite exams and became a professional firefighter. He closely followed what was going on just over the border by the GRIMP search and rescue group in the Moselle region of northern France. In 2000, at the training center in Florac (France), he took the required training course to be able to lead a GRIMP unit. He was the first foreign firefighter to complete this training course. Once back home, he organized and led the exact same training program for his fire station in Aywaille (25 km south of Liège, right next to the Ardennes). This training program was then integrated into the Liège province's firefighting academy. Today, two trainers work full-time, assisted by others from outside the department when needed. All in all they have taught a total of 45 two-week courses, training more than 350 firefighters.

 
For 10 years Maurice has worked hard to push the Belgian government to officially recognize these training courses. Not an easy task given the country's bilingual and bicultural situation. The French speaking part of the country uses the French model, whereas the Flemish speaking part of the country is much more influenced by the Anglo-Saxon model. Maurice is involved in the country's multiple working groups dealing with hazardous environment rescue. Until the Belgian government officially sanctions GRIMP certification, each individual fire department commander voluntarily decides whether or not to implement GRIMP training.
 
exercice d'entrainement

 
 
PictoInterview of Maurice Levaux :
 
What is your daily routine? What type of organization is required?
"Above all I lead an operational unit. I am present for all interventions in my district, including 12 to 15 rescues per year that involve climbers, cavers, paragliders, via ferrata enthusiasts, and ropes courses. For GRIMP personnel from both his province and elsewhere, I organize training and re-certification courses for rock, confined space, and industrial rescues. Each session involves twenty or so people, usually a close-knit team of professionals with a passion for the mountains and who are trained to work well together.
 
What frequent and unexpected issues do you deal with when accessing an accident site?
Each intervention is unique, of course, but all require thorough preparation of both the team and the equipment. During training courses and exercises, we do our best to anticipate every possible scenario, so that everything we do is automatic, guaranteeing the safety of all search and rescue personnel. You need to plan for all types of situations, from industrial accidents to confined environments, both hostile and toxic, where using respiratory apparatuses are necessary. These are conditions that are difficult to replicate in training but for which we must nonetheless prepare.
 
What challenges arise in trying to implement safety guidelines?
During each mission, we need to be extremely attentive to the techniques that we use, following proper procedure and equipment-use protocol, respecting the established guidelines, as well as remaining constantly cautious and aware. In the heat of the action there is no place for improvising, though we do adapt tried and true techniques to a given situation. We also must always maintain a certain margin of safety. One of the key elements during coursework is training the team leader who, before heading out on a mission, must conduct an objective evaluation of the risks, and review the overall situation by highlighting the critical points of the rescue, the potential hazards of the rescue environment, as well as the presence of other risk factors such as machines, chemicals, heat … All throughout the rescue the team leader directs the other team members until everyone is back at the station safe and sound. "Confidence does not exclude control."
 
 
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What are some of the more emotionally charged moments that you experience?
Any and every rescue is a powerful experience, since it goes far beyond the simple training situation. We often have only a short time window to rescue one or two people and we have an obligation to succeed. This requires one to take a step back, to be properly detached in order to effectively analyze the situation, to identify the potential risks, and to come up with a solution. Next you need to implement the rescue plan in order to extract the victim from the rescue site before handing them over to medical professionals. There is always an emotional moment at the end of a rescue for each member of the team, some more difficult to digest than others such as when dealing with a fatality. When everything goes well from a technical perspective, I know that my team proud to return home having completed a successful mission, and often times having saved a life.
 
What kinds of skills and education are required to be part of search and rescue?

Above all else you need to have a real desire to help others. You also need to be a fanatic when it comes to rope rescue techniques, participate regularly in extreme sports, become a specialist in all these techniques, and be in great physical shape. You don't go to a GRIMP training course to learn what a climbing rope is.

What message would you like to send to young people who would like to make search and rescue their career?
First, you need to have already gone through basic firefighter and paramedic training as well as have fulfilled all other perquisites. This will allow you to specialize in search and rescue, and to take the long, demanding, and difficult GRIMP training program. Next, being an expert in rope rescues makes a difference. As with any specialty, search and rescue is usually closely linked to one's personal passion, driving an ongoing interest in the subject matter. Passionate people are tenacious. They persevere until they accomplish their goals. Being able to make a career out of one's passion is a dream come true, don't you think?

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What equipment does search and rescue use?
We use all sport and industry individual safety equipment as well as the entire line of Petzl products.
 
What Petzl piece of gear has most helped to improve rescue techniques and safety for your job?

Without a doubt all rope clamps and capture pulleys, essential gear for all of our rope systems and for rope progression. Petzl gear is easy to set up, easy to use, reliable, and comfortable, performs well and is extremely efficient.

The NEST rescue litter is also an essential piece of equipment for all GRIMP units. It is versatile, simple, and efficient.

For nighttime missions, or those missions in dark places, the ULTRA headlamp is the tool of choice. In all of GRIMP's rescue vehicles we also carry the PIXA 3 ATEX as back up for when we work in explosive environments.

In any case, we test and try out all new products available that are related to our job, and in general we always end up using Petzl gear!!! At the moment we're waiting for our equipment replacement budget to be approved, a sum representing roughly 7,000 to 10,000 Euros that we invest each year to replace and update our fleet of intervention and training equipment. In the future we would like to test prototypes. Improving equipment is a never-ending process!

What do you do on weekends?

Rope related activities of course!!! although a bit less often than I used to. As soon as I have the time, I travel to cold, faraway places with my sled dogs, Tikka and Evak, in order to forget about GRIMP for a while…"

 

 

 

PictoAn amazing career

 

Maurice Levaux has had an amazing career, a career that surprisingly started in the fine arts, where he studied drawing and illustration. After being inspired by the film "The Longest Day," Maurice joined and completed his military service in the Para-commando brigade where he discovered rock climbing. He then ate, slept and drank climbing for some time, a passion interrupted here and there by odd jobs: designing theater props and doing illustrations for the UBS (Belgian Spelunkers Union) magazine. He ended up doing a lot of rope access work in order to finance multiple expeditions: to Lotus Flower Tower (Northwest Territories, Canada), to Ruwenzori, in the Hombori Mountains of Mali, as well as to the Arctic. Today his main focus is pushing to make sure that the GRIMP training programs and certification become officially sanctioned by the Belgian government.

 
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