April 18, 2012

Local firefighters practice swift-water rescue



A van carrying four people goes off the bridge on Ore Bed Road in Redford and plunges into the Saranac River.

Local authorities arrive but are unable to locate the van's occupants, who were swept downstream by the river's strong current while trying to escape the wreckage.

Accidents like this can happen wherever there is moving water. Sometimes, kayakers capsize and are found clinging to rocks in rapids; other times, people break through ice they thought could support their weight.

No matter the emergency, the basic elements of the response are the same — the rescue must be fast, efficient and executed in a manner that has the safety of both the rescuers and the victims in mind.

That's why 50 volunteer rescue personnel from the Adirondack Regional Technical Task Force braved Class III rapids in the Saranac River recently to hone their skills.


The program, funded by a New York state grant, began about three years ago.

"It's amazing to get this many people out here on a Sunday, volunteering their time," said Don Uhler, Task Force team leader and chief of Saranac Volunteer Fire Department.

Of the 14 organizations involved, nine were present at the training: fire companies from Keeseville, Morrisonville, South Plattsburgh, Champlain, Dannemora, Saranac, Ausable, Cumberland Head, and the Champlain Valley K-9 Unit.

Among the demonstration's main objectives were to increase public knowledge of the team's progress and to help facilitate a cohesive bond among the agencies involved.

"We are getting better in areas we couldn't perform in two years ago," Uhler said. "We have four joint trainings a year, and the individual teams train monthly."


The Adirondack Regional Technical Task Force also travels to help communities beyond the North Country. Recently, floods from Tropical Storm Irene took them to Binghamton and Middlebury, Vt.

The team is equipped with enough provisions to stay on site for 72 hours, meaning it doesn't require outside resources in an emergency situation.

"The last thing a community should have to worry about is how to take care of the rescue team," Uhler said.


At the recent training, the mock scenario of a van winding up in the river was utilized to practice the steps taken in a swift-water-rescue situation.

First, a "hasty team" is sent out to quickly search riverbanks for clues leading to the victims' whereabouts.

Next, a "methodical search team" enters the water and searches features that people are likely to get caught up on, such as large rocks and debris piles. An inflatable boat equipped with an underwater camera, which can probe depths of 50 feet, can also be deployed for underwater search.

If there isn't a bridge spanning the waterway, the rescuers can also use a highline — a thick rope strung across the water — to act as a guide to navigate an inflatable search raft through the current.


A swift-water rescue is not a "divide and conquer" scenario, though. A command center, called an Incident Command System, is established on location to hold the entire operation together.

The station looks like the kind of tent a county-fair vendor might use, but instead of menus, there are dry erase boards containing tactical strategies on the back wall, and the people sitting behind the tables aren't taking orders — they're giving them. The group of rescuers is divided into six-person strike teams, and a leader for each reports to the command center every 20 minutes.

"It's difficult when there are three different strike teams performing three different functions, so the command structure keeps people accountable and safe," Uhler said.

Safety is always a priority. Each rescuer wears a personal flotation device, helmet and dry suit. They also carry a knife to cut themselves free from entanglement and a blow-off strap that can be pulled to release a safety rope attached to their backs.


Members from the Morrisonville Explorer Junior Team, aspiring firefighters between 14 and 21 years of age, participated in the training. The group's members go out on fire calls and assist their older counterparts in battling blazes but are not allowed to enter the interior of burning buildings.

At the other end of the spectrum, Wolfgang Mattes, an 80-year-old firefighter from Cumberland Head who has been with his department since 1990, took to the rapids to practice techniques for swimming in fast-moving currents.

"It just gets everybody used to being in this kind of water," Mattes said. "If the Cumberland Head Fire Department needs to come help these guys, I can do it."

Mattes first learned swift-water rescue in 1995 and applauded the efforts of the Task Force, noting that the level of training and teamwork within the group is remarkable.

"As far as mutual aid goes, Clinton County is one of the top areas in the country," Mattes said.

"Everybody here is getting hands-on training. These older guys are showing the younger puppies how it's done."