Being surrounded by water can be a curse, but for Sanibel Fire Rescue it is a blessing when it comes to water rescue training.
Sanibel brought a version of its training program to more than 30 firefighters representing 18 fire districts from Estero to Alva for the Lee County Co-Op Water Rescource Training session Aug. 27-29 on Pine Island. Firefighters were exposed to procedures in handling water incidents for three days in the Pine Island Community Pool in the mornings and in open water in the afternoon.
"Our water rescue program is top notch," said Sanibel Fire Rescue training officer Tim Barrett. "We get together every few months to let the other guys learn. Our program is more involved. We do open water swims and I expect a lot more of our guys. This was similar to our rescue program on the Island and everyone always learns something new. It went really well."
During a water emergency every second counts. When one occurs, such as a boat fire, a car in a canal or a boater or swimmer in trouble in the water, the fire department usually is the first on the scene.
Firefighters and rescue truck personnel learn to handle water emergencies. They learn skills to perform a surface water rescue and train for open water scenarios under more realistic conditions.
There were four primary areas covered in the pool - car search, back board, bunker gear and surface rescue. Each team from each fire department was given an opportunity at all four sessions.
"At the bottom of the pool is a rescue vehicle," said Capt. Michael Heeder, spokesperson for Cape Coral Fire Department. "This is actually a plastic car made from PVC. Once submerged, it simulates an automobile under water where firefighters can retrieve someone from a car in a canal. It seems we've had quite a few of those recently. Under ideal circumstances we'd like to send someone in with scuba gear but that's not always possible. Teaching them the proper skills to be safe under water and to get people out of danger safely is what we were doing here."
For the car search portion the firefighters wore goggles with the lens sand blasted.
"In order to simulate the very limited vision a firefighter would have in a canal we sandblasted the lenses of the goggles," Heeder said. "The goggles protect their eyes and at the same time makes them almost blind. It helps them learn to move around a wreck site by feel and enhance their ability to do what needs to be done without actually seeing."
The back board station simulates someone in trouble, possibly with a back or neck injury, needing rescue from the water. They are carefully positioned on a board and then removed from the water.
"I would swim away from the boat and be the victim," said Barett. "They would put me on the board and get me into the boat. That is no easy task."
There are cases where firefighters at a house fire, with lots of smoke, will fall into a pool or at a marina fire, fall off a dock. This is where firefighter survival techniques come into play. At the diving board end of the pool firefighters in full protective gear would kneel on the end of the diving board and then fall into the pool. Learning how to cope with the unexpected is a big part of their training.
They are trained to handle the most difficult situations. Lehigh Acres firefighter Dennis Welsh, 30, has been a firefighter for five years. He worked for a volunteer fire department for a couple of years and then three years with the Lehigh Acres Fire Department. He recently pulled a woman from a car in a canal.
"The training is definitely helpful even if you only get partially in the water," Welsh said. "Just as the trainers said I couldn't get the door open. The car was partially buried in the mud. From the training I knew exactly what to do. I broke the window to get the woman out."
Post 9/11, state-of-the art equipment is standard for all fire departments. Cape Coral has four marine units strategically positioned around the city, with two boats in slips on the water and ready for immediate deployment when needed. The other two are trailered in fire stations near the water and support rescue efforts in the canals where the larger boat cannot navigate due to the depth or bridges in the city of Cape Coral. Each fire engine carries dive equipment and all Cape firefighters receive training in diving.
Pine Island/Matlacha has a 1990 24-foot Carolina Skiff. Powered by a 2001 Mercury 115 Four-Stroke. This boat has medical and firefighting equipment. In 2001 they secured a grant from the West Coast Inland Navigational Fund for re-powering and the addition of some electronic equipment. This included, GPS, Radar, Chart Plotter and Marine VHF. The boat is staffed by the on- duty personnel. Each person that is assigned to respond in the boat must pass a boat safety course and must meet other requirements as set down by the boat coordinator.
"Making sure our first responders are trained in water resource skills is a crucial part of their training," Heeder said. "Their job is to save lives and they take that job very seriously. These firefighters are the best I've ever worked with."
The training sessions are scheduled four times a year. The next will be in November.
Pine Island Eagle editor Ed Franks contributed to this report.