Firefighters take to river for training

BOAT OPERATIONS — Members of the Marthasville and Warrenton Fire Protection Districts held a boat operations training Wednesday, Sept. 2, on the Missouri River at Washington. The goal was to familiarize members with the rescue boats and the responsibilities of each team member while conducting a water rescue. Cindy Gladden photo.
Cindy Gladden
Staff Writer

Warren County first responders have seen their share of water emergencies, including flash flooding on area streams and prolonged flooding from the Missouri River. Firefighters who serve the county continue to train for a wide variety of incidents, including water rescues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more deaths occur due to flooding than from any other thunderstorm-related hazard. Only six inches of fast-moving water can knock over an adult and 12 inches can carry away most vehicles.

On Wednesday, Sept. 2, members of the Marthasville Fire Protection District (MFPD) and Warrenton Fire Protection District (WFPD) met at the Washington Riverfront for water rescue boat operation training on the Missouri River. Each department brought their rescue boats. The Zodiac, a light and maneuverable inflatable boat, is designed to withstand swift currents, often a dangerous component of water rescues.

Kelly Grassmuck, Deputy Chief of Training for the West County EMS & Fire Protection District was the instructor.

“They are learning basic skills of water rescue,” said Grassmuck. “It’s a rescue where you have a lot of adrenaline pumping. It’s really important to have your own resources so a rescue can be done quickly.”

Grassmuck said the ideal situation is to have three boats for optimum safety. For the training, Marthasville and Warrenton were working as a team. Mutual aid is important when it comes to water rescues, because not every department owns its own rescue resources, such as the Zodiac.

“We want the members to become comfortable with operating the boat before they have to go into turbulent water,” said Assistant Chief Sean Johnson of the MFPD. “They learn how the boat responds in the introductory phase of training.”

Johnson said communication and terminology on the boat team is something the members covered during the training. Firefighters also practiced tensioning or the “snatch” system, using ropes and caribiners to bring a victim to the bank.

Grassmuck said firefighters positioned in the boat each have their own responsibilities. The bowman in the front is watching for hazards and looking for victims. The man in the middle concentrates on the rescue while the firefighter in the back is in charge of the tiller, often depending on the bowman to avoid hazards.

“They have to be ready for anything,” said Grassmuck.

Chief Anthony Haselip of the WFPD is an experienced boat operator. Although his district does not include flooding from the Missouri River as a hazard, there are still plenty of areas where water rescue may be necessary.

“We have a lot of static water sources in our district, such as Alpine Lake at Innsbrook,” he said. “We also have swift water incidents as the creeks swell during flash floods.”

The MFPD has the distinction of two types of flooding and its members need to be prepared for both. Flooding along the Missouri River tends to be slow and stagnant, often offering plenty of time to be prepared. Flash flooding can strike simultaneously in various places in Southern Warren County, along streams such as Smith or Charrette Creek, near bridges, or at low water crossings.

To be prepared for flash flooding incidents, several firefighters have received their certification as swift water technicians from the grueling course at Indiana River Rescue School. Those certified from the MFPD include Mike Day, Justin Backhaus, Brian Kopp, Chris Pitucha, Sean Johnson and Scott Powell. Matt Dabbs from the WFPD is also certified.

“We have six certified and four additional candidates for training in 2021,” said Johnson. “There are six members trained as boat operators.”

Johnson said it takes at least 10 people to safely conduct a water rescue — a team upstream, a team in the hot zone, and a team downstream. Taking a boat out or sending a technician into the water is the last resort. Firefighters learn to use a “throw bag” operation from the bank as the first option. The bag contains a 75-foot rope that is thrown to the victim.

Additional boat operation training will be held Wednesday, Sept. 16 at the boat dock in Treloar. Johnson reported that Marthasville’s Proposition F funding was not used for the Zodiac, the training fees or gear for the swift water technicians. Those funds are best spent on the new fire station and other rescue equipment.

Instead, the MFPD has funded some of their equipment and training needs by holding several barbecues each year. It takes approximately $3,000 for each member to be certified. The next barbecue will be held Sunday, Sept. 20, at Station 1 in Marthasville.

“We are willing to put sweat equity into our community,” said Johnson. “Our members volunteer to raise the money to purchase specialty equipment they need to mitigate incidents.”

One thing that is apparent to all firefighters participating in the training is that water rescue is a responsibility shared by all Warren County departments. Johnson referred to the mutual aid agreement between departments as a “unified or married team.”

Often residents ignore the warning signs urging them to “turn around, don’t drown.” First responders can tell you from first hand experience that roadways often traveled are not what they seem after heavy rains and flooding.

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