New Riversport Rapids facility provides realistic training ground for specialized firefighters
Between rafts full of people coursing through the new Riversport Rapids, Oklahoma City firefighters can sometimes be seen tossing themselves into and being pulled from the city's artificial whitewater course.
The crew of Fire Station 8 uses the facility to train its “swift-water” techniques. The maneuvers are utilized to pull people from engorged rivers and rescue people who have been swept away by floodwaters.
The rush of water coming from the park's six hydraulic pumps are more forceful than any floodwaters firefighters are likely to encounter, which makes it perfect for firefighter training, Maj. Brad Smith said.
The firefighters practice techniques as simple as swimming through and against coursing currents and helping stranded victims work their way to the banks while clutching to firefighters through flowing, knee-high waters.
But the real challenge and the most intense training comes from trying to rescue those who are being carried away by rushing waters.
The most dangerous techniques for firefighters being ones that put them into the water themselves, they use a five-step system to bring people to safety.
First, they try to “talk” them out. If that doesn't work, they try to “reach” something out and drag the victim to shore. If that fails, they begin to “throw” items, such as coils of rope inside a fabric bag or getting a flotation device to them, Smith said.
The next step is “row,” or sending a manned boat into the water. And the last ditch effort is “go,” which puts firefighters themselves into the water to attempt a rescue, he said.
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Recreational boaters watch from concrete shores as firefighters wearing life jackets toss themselves into the rushing waters between boats full of people while other members of their crew wait on the shore with throw bags, or coils of rope inside bags woven of nylon or synthetic material.
This type of training is known as operator-level, meaning a technique that occurs at the water's edge. Submerged rescue techniques are known as technician-level exercises.
The firefighters being pulled along by the artificial current are referred to as live bait, and the objective is to get a throw bag to the victims that can be used to drag them to shore. Another firefighter or two hold onto metal hooks on the back of their life jackets to anchor the firefighter pulling on the tow rope.
Smith and his crew sometimes train this technique on the lower part of the course, sending the firefighters without watercraft over the farthest drop and into a pool where the waters push them along at a steady speed.
Most of the firefighters catch the rope on the first try, but it takes a second throw to catch the bite on a few occasions, illustrating the demand for realistic training that keeps firefighters safe.
“We always want to keep it as safe as possible and stay out of the water if all possible,” Smith said.
In Oklahoma City, these techniques are most often used when motorists drive into standing water and are stranded or dragged along by floodwaters.
“Every time we have a flood, people drive into the water like they've never seen this before. Native Oklahomans, they know what happens in the spring, but it seems like every year, we continually respond to these people when we have flood events that think they can drive a compact vehicle through 4-foot-deep water and it never works,” Smith said.
“I want to stress ‘Turn Around, Don't Drown'. It's not worth your life trying to get through 4-feet-deep water when you can turn around and find another route. It may take you longer, but at the end of the day, you've made yourself safer and you've made us safer because we don't have to show up and execute a rescue,” he said.