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A ‘rapids’ response
Great Bend firefighters train for swift-water rescue
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Great Bend Fire Department Capt. Eric Yoder, “rescues” fellow firefighter David Smiros playing the “victim” during swift-water rescue training Friday afternoon in the Great Bend flood control ditch west of town.

 Although it still ran full from recent rains, the gently flowing water rolling through the flood control channel just west of Great Bend was nowhere near a swift-moving stream. But it still gave Great Bend firefighters a chance to get their feet wet Friday afternoon. 

Several members of the Fire Department took much of the day training for swift-water rescues and boat operations. The firefighters spent the morning and into the afternoon at Fire Station Number Two for classroom training, then moved to the ditch to put what they studied and learned indoors into practice.

“This is just one more tool for us,” said Fire Chief Luke McCormick. “Although there is not a huge need around here, the water we do have can cause us issues,” and it doesn’t take much water to be dangerous.

A handful of Great Bend Fire Department personnel had just recently attended multi-day swift-water and boat op training at RiverSport Rapids in the Oklahoma City, Okla. This is a recreational facility that also offers assorted safety courses in conjunction with Oklahoma State University and Mid America Rescue Company.

“It was intense,” said firefighter Eric Yoder, one of the new grads from the program. “They call it ‘high-speed drowning.’”

These are in-the-water experience for emergency professionals. Participants train in hazard recognition, equipment use, shore-based rescue and in-water techniques. 

There is also a comprehensive overview of response concepts, hydrology and water characteristics, hazards, rope throwing, rescue tactics, rescue equipment and medical considerations. In addition, there are courses for boat operators.

Practice time

Yoder was one of the Great Bend team helping his fellow firefighters Friday. Those who had taken the courses waded out into the water and pretended to be “victims” while others stayed ashore and helped from there.

It may not have been a rapid current and it may have been a beautiful, clear spring afternoon, but the principles were the same.

Safety first. Enter the water. Rescue the victim.

“This water isn’t moving fast,” said one the GBFD firefighters who had taken the training to his colleagues. But, event at that, “it’s not as easy as it looks.”

They took turns donning life jackets, inching up to the shoreline and heaving the ropes with weighted bags to the victim floundering in the murky water. They also practiced deploying “water curtains,” ropes with multiple loops for a someone to grab, and operating from a boat.

Jokes were made, but they all understood the seriousness of what they were doing. In reality, what they practiced could be the difference between life and death.

McCormick said teams from Great Bend are taking turns taking the training. When done, he will have 12 who have taken the water training and six who have taken the boat training.

A regional effort

But, there is a bigger picture, he said. Great Bend is part of the Kansas Task Force 5 through, a pool of fire departments in the south central part of the state. 

These agencies share resources and are often called upon to assist with disasters around the country, such as the hurricane that struck Houston. Now, Great Bend will have one more asset it can contribute to this effort, McCormick said.

The Task Force is through the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office, but is ultimately funded via the federal Department of Homeland Security. It was a HLS grant that paid for the GBFD training and equipment.

And that is not chump change, the fire chief said. Just the special water-proof suits cost $1,000 each and Great Bend has six of them.