NASA Kennedy Space Center firefighter Andrew Morgan, pictured below in the front, is selected as the Space Coast Fire Chiefs Association’s 2020 Firefighter of the Year.
A member of the Technical Rescue Team, Morgan scaled down the side of the Vehicle Assembly Building to rescue a team of painters when their scaffolding motor broke in October 2020, leaving them stranded 375 feet off the ground. Standing behind Morgan are the rest of the crew on C shift at the Florida spaceport, who also assisted in the rescue mission.
When a broken scaffolding motor left a team of painters hanging on the side of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in October 2020, NASA Kennedy Space Center firefighter Andrew Morgan scaled down to the rescue. Now he’s being recognized by the Space Coast Fire Chiefs’ Association as their 2020 Firefighter of the Year.
“I had never been a part of a high angle rescue,” Morgan said. “This was the first occasion to use the skills that my team and I have practiced many times.”
Morgan is a Technical Rescue Team member and part of a group that trains to rescue astronauts and closeout crew from Kennedy’s launch pads during crewed launches. There are 25 volunteers who cover shifts to support the Commercial Crew Program, as well as upcoming Artemis launches.
“On the Technical Rescue Team, we respond to emergency calls that require specific skills such as high angle rescue, confined space rescue, and advanced vehicle extrication,” Morgan said. “I’ve been here 34 years, and I was on the original Technical Rescue Team,” said David Seymour, assistant chief of operations, C shift. “I’ve never had anything like this.”
It was the last day of the job for the painters. Three inspectors were checking for missed spots on the giant, freshly painted American flag on the iconic VAB when the scaffolding motor on the roof broke, leaving the men and their narrow platform stuck 375 feet off the ground. They dangled 150 feet from the top, and it was a long way down.
When Seymour first arrived on the scene, the paint crew feared they would have to use wire cutters to disconnect the scaffold from the motor, leaving the men to lower themselves manually to the ground. But Seymour was quick to tell them there was already a plan in place.
Months earlier, when Seymour learned that the flag and the NASA meatball logo were going to be repainted, he took the Technical Rescue Team members on “C” shift up to the roof. “I told them to make a plan in case we have to go over the side and get them.”
The paint inspectors had already been stuck a couple of hours when Kennedy Fire Rescue got the alert. It took more time for the 19 firefighters to haul 900 pounds of rope and equipment to the roof. Reaching the top meant taking a large elevator to the 34th floor and then transferring to a much smaller elevator with a strict weight limit. “We sent up one firefighter and a weight allowance of equipment at a time,” Seymour said.
Once on roof, Morgan and his team set up a mechanical advantage system using pulleys and ropes, which would allow them to lower a rescuer down and haul him and a second person back up by hand. “We had to make sure that everything was precise and methodical, leaving no room for error,” Morgan said. “The hardest part was the lack of visibility on the roof.” Darkness had fallen, and generators with portable lighting were added to the haul of equipment.
Just as the team was ready to send someone over the edge, rain began falling. Morgan volunteered to go first. Once he reached the scaffolding, Morgan strapped one of the men to his body, and the two were hauled to the roof. By that time, a replacement motor had arrived, enabling the team to lift the remaining two men to safety by the scaffold.
“The rescue team did a phenomenal job. I’m proud of them,” said Fire Chief Richard Anderson, Chenega Infinity. “We train for this, and NASA outfits us well.”
The Technical Rescue Team trains on rappelling and patient pickoffs inside of the VAB at heights of 30 to 40 feet. The shift team conducts quarterly training to review different rescue techniques and tactics, go over specialized equipment, and set up rigging and hauling systems to maintain skills and knowledge. Morgan began his firefighting career in 2007 and joined the Kennedy team in 2015. “This incident reinforced how important our training has been, and that it makes all the difference when it comes to running a true emergency call,” he said.
Morgan was selected as the Firefighter of the Year by the Space Coast Fire Chief’s Association selection committee. He competed with other firefighters from municipalities in Brevard County, and selection was based on leadership, performance, significant self-improvement, and community involvement. “Throughout this process, Andrew has consistently recognized his fellow team members, which is a testament to him as an individual,” said Chief Anderson. “It is our honor to have Andrew represent our department, our company, and NASA.”