Rescue 3 International instructor Kim Little spent a weekend in the west branch of the Ausable River, leading a training session (shown here) for local fire departments- swift-water-rescue teams. Saranac Fire Department officials then led their first training course on the Saranac River, where volunteers from six area fire departments and several forest rangers and Albany-based animal-rescue officials took advantage of the course

SARANAC -- Last week, three local firefighters spent several days jumping into the tumultuous waters of the Saranac River.

As the rapids rushed downstream, Saranac Fire Chief Don Uhler and Assistant Chiefs T.J. Strack and Shawn Emerson immersed themselves in the frigid water, earning certification as rescue instructors.

"It's a huge step for them. Now they can start doing training in-house as certified instructors of both swift-water and technical-rope rescue," said Kim Little, an instructor with Rescue 3 International, who has taught rescue instructors and training programs in about 35 countries.

The newly certified Saranac chiefs can now teach the training independently.

"There's hardly any (program-certified instructors) in the whole Northeast, and I don't know of any others in New York," Little said.

Suited in cold-water rescue gear, the three plunged into the depths of the river as it drew them downstream, whirling them around boulders and sending them tumbling into fast-churning "holes."

"You need to understand and know what it feels like before you can try to pull someone out of it," said Strack, who rode the currents downstream during the last day of the 40-hour instructor program.

"People just don't realize the dangerous force of the water," Little said.

The Saranac Fire Department's already extensive rescue training proved its value just recently when a canoeist plunged over a waterfall and became trapped in the spiraling currents of one of the many river holes.

Within minutes of the emergency call, Strack jumped into the raging waters in Redford and swam to the island, where the initially unresponsive boater lay exhausted and on the verge of hypothermia.

After securing a diagonal zipline across the river, Emerson guided the canoeist to safety, where fellow fire volunteers and EMTs were waiting.

"Everyone really stepped up with support, and all of the support staff was paramount to the rescue," said Uhler, who praised fire volunteers for their wide range of assistance during the rescue.

"It was like a textbook rescue," said Little, who was in town for a weekend training seminar in Wilmington when the call rang through.

"In only 40 minutes, the guy was into the ambulance. It takes a lot of training and skill to do something like that safely and with such a good response. They very well saved this man's life."

For Uhler and others, the continued training is a growing necessity due to an increase in local water activity in recent years.

Uhler said officials have been working toward the certification for about seven years after having already completed seven other Rescue 3 courses.

"And our full intent is to put our knowledge back into the community," he said.

Uhler taught his first course, along with Strack and Emerson, last weekend to about 25 volunteers from six area departments, forest rangers and Albany-based animal-rescue officials.

"We can help our own department and our neighboring departments," Uhler said. "There's a lot of good, solid state and local programs out there, but this is additional training that we can provide."

"This is specialized training," Emerson said. "The knowledge is just invaluable."

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