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GBFD conducts swift water training on river
_Braden Cox and Matt Peterson
Braden Cox and Matt Peterson navigate their rescue boat through the choppy waters of the Arkansas River in south Great Bend Monday afternoon. - photo by Daniel Kiewel

With the Arkansas River rising due to recent rains, the Great Bend Fire Department Swift Water Rescue and Boat teams took advantage of conditions Monday afternoon to conduct swift-water boat rescue training along the river south of the river dike.

GBFD Deputy Chief Brent Smith described it as “high-risk, low frequency” training. The skills practiced Monday are ones they do not use often, but swift-water rescue is a high-danger situation they always have to be prepared for.

Smith said the teams are responsible for swift-water rescues during times of flooding and in potential drowning situations. He recalled, for instance, the spring and summer of 2019 when the area experienced heavy rain and widespread flooding. The team was called upon to aid multiple communities and encountered multiple recovery situations.

Instances like those are why the team was out on the muddy, frigid waters of the Arkansas River Monday, because it is rare for the river’s levels to be high enough and the water flowing fast enough to be able to do their training near Great Bend. The river, he said, is usually only high enough about once a year to do the training. Otherwise, they train at Riversport in Oklahoma City, Okla., a year-round facility specifically designed for swift-water rescue training, where many of the team members received their initial training. 

However, Smith said they rely on times like Monday to better simulate real-world life-and-death situations.

One reason the training is so important is because rescues in swift water can be extremely hazardous for multiple reasons. Along with rapid currents, Smith said, as was the case Monday, the water is often clouded by mud and silt and it is impossible to see potential debris underneath the surface. Not only does it present hazards to potential victims, but can be dangerous for rescue teams as well.

For example, as the team trained on the river last year, the rescue boat’s motor sucked up a branch, disabling the motor and forcing the team to maneuver the boat under human power. In that instance, crews on the shore were able toss the crew a rope, allowing them to get the boat safely back to shore for repair.

For reasons like this, simulating a disabled boat is part of the training the team undergoes when they have the opportunity to train on the river.

“You just never know what’s going to happen,” Smith said. “That’s the uncertainty of moving water.”

Monday’s training session involved helping new, as well as more experienced, team members brush up on multiple skill sets.

The team out on the water Monday ranged from new members with less than a year on the job to veterans with more than three decades experience on the water. For the newer members of the team, it was an opportunity to learn to navigate the boat through swift moving, debris filled water, learning from those with more experience.

The team also practiced rescuing a simulated drowning victim, in this case played by Firefighter Chad Burroughs, floating down the river’s rapidly flowing waters. From the shore, firefighters practiced throwing rope bags to the victim. Those are floating bags with ropes designed to be a lifeline for victims caught in the water.

Great Bend’s Swift Water Rescue and Dive teams are part of a Regional Task Force covering a 19-county area throughout south central Kansas.

Team members participating in Monday’s training included Jordan Elliott, Skyler Edwards, Kevin Stansfield, Todd Hamby, Burroughs, Matt Peterson, Braden Cox and Jim Schmeidler.