Firefighters hone skills for river water rescues

An Eastside Fire and Rescue firefighter practices using a line to cross a river safely. - Chad Coleman/Reporter Newspapers
An Eastside Fire and Rescue firefighter practices using a line to cross a river safely.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Reporter Newspapers

Just before thousands head to rivers to cool off from spring’s first heat, firefighters were waist deep in the frigid Snoqualmie River, freshening up their rescue skills.

Eastside Fire and Rescue organized the training for a number of agencies in the area this week.

The training sessions ranged from swift water rescues to rope pulleys propelled across the water with an air gun.

“We like to come out here and pull every tool we have off the truck and play with it,” said Mark Vetter, an EFR firefighter.

The training gives firefighters experience using less common tools and techniques, which when the time comes, can be crucial for saving a life.

EFR does about a half dozen serious water rescues and body recoveries each year. That’s in addition to numerous simple rescues, like a swimmer who twists an ankle on the wrong side of the creek, said Spokesperson Josie Williams.

The timing of the training is in line with spring’s rushing rivers, Vetter said. “We try to train close to higher water.”

Memorial Day weekend keeps firefighters on their toes, because the rivers flow fast from fresh snow runoff and they’re colder, Williams said.

Unfortunately, many serious water rescues turn out to be body recoveries, and the victims were usually drinking alcohol, she said.

Most recreational swimmers don’t realize how strong rivers are, Vetter said. “When you get down and the water is up to your chest, the water is going to take you down.”

During the training, three firefighters wore yellow dry suites and slowly helped each other navigate across the river. The first firefighter in line broke the water with his body, and the rest helped him stay upright.

Once across the river, they climbed a hill to secure ropes to trees.

A system of ropes and pulleys created a stable system for transporting a firefighter and stokes basket, which would hold a victim, about 6 feet above the river.

While this technique is only used every couple of years, many aspects of the setup play into skills regularly used.

“Rope is the backbone of any rescue operation,” Vetter said.

To see a full photo essay, visit Chad Coleman's blog, Focus Northwest.

A firefighter with Eastside Fire and Rescue shoots an air-propelled rope launcher across the Snoqualmie River in a swift water training class. CHAD COLEMAN, REPORTER NEWSPAPERS

Eastside Fire and Rescue firefighters prepare a Stokes basket to cross the Snoqualmie River over a high line during water rescue training. CHAD COLEMAN, REPORTER NEWSPAPERS

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