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Area firefighters learn lines of attack for swift water rescues

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 8:11 p.m.
Bruce Siskawicz | Tribune-Review
Blairsville firefighter Justin Jones swims in bulky safety gear as part of a swift water rescue training exercise Sept. 29 at Loyalhanna Dam near Saltsburg.
Bruce Siskawicz | Tribune-Review
From left, Saltsburg firefighters Steve Bell and Anthony Zalus take part in advanced swift water rescue training with members of other area fire departments Sept. 29 at Loyalhanna Dam near Saltsburg.
Bruce Siskawicz | Tribune-Review
Blairsville firefighter Tim Jones (right) and other local firefighters practice advanced line techniques during a swift water rescue training session Sept. 29 at Loyalhanna Dam near Saltsburg.

Imagine this scene: Torrential rains have created flood waters that are fast-moving and cold. Someone you love is trapped in a submerged vehicle in the middle of these raging waters. There's not much time to act — sound decision-making and skilled rescue techniques are paramount to saving a life.

To prepare for just such a scenario, a group of 15 area firefighters — most from Indiana County — recently honed their swift water rescue skills during a two-day Advanced Line Systems Rescue training program at the Loyalhanna Dam. Hosted by the Blairsville Volunteer Fire Department's water rescue team, trainees included members of the Blairsville, Saltsburg, Homer City, Indiana, Tunnelton and Johnstown fire departments.

Swift water rescue is one of the most dangerous operations firefighters can undertake. ALSR uses complex rope systems and technical maneuvers to protect both rescuers and victims.

In addition to incidents of flooding, increased recreational use of area waterways has heightened the potential for rescue situations, as noted by Tim Jones and Tom Barberich, co-captains of Blairsville Volunteer Fire Department's water rescue team.

“Ten years ago, no one was really using the (Conemaugh) river — it was too nasty. Now, someone is on that river almost daily,” said Jones, also captain of the fire department. “We're not required to do this, but if we don't, who will?”

While Blairsville firefighters have had no recent rescue calls on the Conemaugh, they want to be prepared should the call come, added Barberich, who is assistant fire chief for the department.

“Kayakers are always out on the river now,” he noted.

Other fire departments have seen an increase in recreational water rescue calls — particularly in the Saltsburg area. Saltsburg is located where the Conemaugh River and Loyalhanna Creek converge to form the Kiskiminetas River and is home to a canoe and kayak rental business.

According to Steve Bell, a lieutenant with Saltsburg Volunteer Fire Department, so far this year, his department has responded to four local swift water rescue calls and three deployments to other areas to help with flooding rescues. He estimated those combined calls represent an increase of about 25 percent over the past four years.

When the DuBois area experienced major flooding this past summer, Bell and fellow Saltsburg firefighter John Phillips were among those who answered the call for help, in accordance with Homeland Security Region 13 reciprocity agreements. They assisted in incidents where people trapped in homes and in the water needed to be rescued.

“Public safety is the main reason we're all here,” Bell said of the training event at the dam. “Especially with the growth in the canoe business, the river is packed with people during the summer.”

Instructors for the ALSR class were brothers Tom and Mike Buchan, both from Johnstown. With more than 50 years of combined experience, they are Fire Academy trainers as well as certified instructors for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Bucks County Community College.

According to Mike Buchan, “This is the most physically demanding of the water rescue courses. They enter dangerous water to contact with panicky victims. They put themselves in the same hazardous situations as the victims. Strong swimming skills are essential here.”

Jones and Barberich stressed that ALSR techniques should be used only when all lower-risk options have been exhausted.

Bucks County Community College paid for the training, which was designed by the Fish and Boat Commission. The Army Corp of Engineers also contributed to the effort by adjusting conditions on Loyalhanna Creek for the exercise. To simulate a more realistic swift water rescue situation, increased flows were released from Loyalhanna Dam.

Students learned to establish and operate an appropriate line system for a given situation, perform the rescue or recovery and then tear the system down afterward. Knowledge of ropes, rigging, boat maneuvers and paddling techniques are all part of the program.

Tethered rescuer techniques using a newer class of personal flotation devices were covered. In the past, Jones said, rescuers were taught to never tether themselves to a rope as the dangers of becoming entangled and drowning were too great.

With the improved flotation devices, which have a special release system, Jones said responders can now safely tether to a rope. That provides rescuers added protection against being pulled downstream or underwater in a fast-moving current.

“You learn to never trust (moving) water,” cautioned Phillips. “In a swift water rescue, this line is your life.

“You really need to know water knots, too. These aren't your regular old tie-your-shoe knots.”

Another big concern is how to safely handle a panicky victim. Firefighters learned how to deal with persons who, in their distress, often work against efforts to save them. During the second day of training, all participants had a chance to switch between the roles of victim and rescuer.

“Victims” jumped in upstream and floated feet first downstream — getting bounced off rocks and washed over by waves of water. Rescuers had to time their dive into the river just right and then swim hard across the current to grab the “victim” on the go-by. This was practiced both as a tethered and as a free-swim capture.

Responders also were trained to knock a victim's grasping hands away from the rescuer's body and then go underwater in order to resurface directly behind the victim and control the distressed individual without further risk to themselves.

In addition to its swift water rescue capabilities, Blairsville's fire department operates a certified rescue/recovery dive team. The team includes eight members from Blairsville and additional members from other Indiana County fire departments — one from Plumville, two from Black Lick, one from Homer City and two from Indiana. According to Jones and Barberich, it is essentially a county-wide team run by Blairsville.

Most recently, the divers were involved in recovering the body of a drowning victim from Yellow Creek Lake in August.

While flood water emergencies can't always be avoided, recreational rescues more often can.

Jones said he advises people who want to enjoy some fun in the water to simply use their heads: “Always check the weather before you go, and know your distances. Bolivar is not a half-hour from Blairsville (in a kayak or canoe). Enjoy the water, but be careful and be smart about it.”

Pamela Sagely is a freelance writer.

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