At first glance, firefighting and swiftwater rescue might appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. But, in reality, the two disciplines have much in common n the reason that many fire departments across the country take on the responsibility of water rescue operations. This week, four Wetumpka firefighters were part of a group that received instruction in swiftwater rescue. Course instructor was Scott Phillips of Rescue 3. The class was taught in Wetumpka at the Elmore County Firefighter Training Center and on the Coosa River near Moccasin Gap.
“In a place like this, where the town is centered around the river, I’d think this training would be absolutely necessary,” said Phillips.
The recent session wasn’t the first that has been conducted locally. For the past two or three years, firefighters from Alabama and neighboring states have come to Wetumpka to participate in similar courses.
“There have been groups from Dothan, the Birmingham area and other states,” said Wetumpka Fire Chief Greg Willis. “The first time, Scott called me out of professional courtesy, just to let me know they would be out in the river.
“As I learned more about it, I realized that if this is where people come to practice water rescue, we needed to be practicing ourselves,” he continued.
The most recent class also included firefighters from Prattville and Selma. Trainees spent the first day in a classroom and the following two days in the water in wetsuits.
“The background elements are the same as firefighting,” said Willis. “In the fire department we utilize a lot of ropes and pulley systems, so we already possess the needed skills. Also, we don’t have to worry about securing weapons before we go into the water like the police would have to do.”
Willis said the course proved to be a demanding one.
“Physically, this is the most demanding class I’ve taken since I’ve been in fire service,” he said.
Willis explained that there are three training elements necessary for members of a qualified swiftwater rescue team n operations, technical and watercraft operations.
“We’re the agency those rescues ultimate fall to,” he said. “I’d eventually like to see us develop a fully-equipped, fully-trained 12-man team. That would take two to three years to evolve.”
In addition to the requisite training, experience is another key factor in the effectiveness of such a unit.
“A lot of our people are very familiar with the river, and that’s important,” Willis said. “Hopefully that experience will allow our people to get up to speed pretty quickly.”
He explained that a swiftwater rescue team is already part of Prattville’s fire service, and Tallassee is currently developing a team.
“Those teams that are close geographically often train together and assist each other,” said Willis. “Actual rescue operations are very demanding physically and in man-hours, so support between departments is essential.”
Willis said the Wetumpka Fire Department currently has an aluminum boat that is used for water operations, but more would be required for an adequately equipped team.
“We would probably need to acquire some rubber rafts or Zodiacs,” he said. “I feel pretty confident that we would be able to get some grant money to find most of the necessary equipment, like boats and wetsuits.”
Some of the skills taught during this week’s class included self-rescue; rescuing and extricating an accident victim from the water; safely swimming and maneuvering in swiftwater; handling small inflatable boats by paddle, oar and on tether; utilizing climbing and technical rescue gear; fording shallow and fast-moving water; and crossing deep, slow-moving and fast-moving water utilizing basic climbing gear, small boats and combinations of the two.
Willis said he plans for other city firefighters to complete the training that he, Jonathan Brown, Andrew McCullers and Alex Shockley just finished. At the same time, the initial group will move on to other classes.
By Peggy Blackburn - Managing Editor
The Wetumpka Herald