Indiana fire department establishes swiftwater rescue team

So far, 62 of the Terre Haute Fire Department's 150 firefighters are trained in swift water rescue, with classes ongoing


David Kronke
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — The Terre Haute Fire Department's Swift Water Rescue Team introduced itself to the public Wednesday afternoon on the banks of the Wabash River in Fairbanks Park.

The team is the brainchild of Bill Berry, who has served as THFD Chief since April 2021.

The Terre Haute Fire Department's Swift Water Rescue Team made its public debut Wednesday afternoon on the banks of the Wabash River in Fairbanks Park.
The Terre Haute Fire Department's Swift Water Rescue Team made its public debut Wednesday afternoon on the banks of the Wabash River in Fairbanks Park. (Photo/Terre Haute Fire Department)

"When the mayor appointed me, I told him that this was one of the biggest goals that I really wanted to hit," Berry said. "It's just another service we can provide for our citizens. We've got a lot of guys who are already trained as swift water technicians. It's a nominal fee for the mayor to buy this rescue boat."

Mayor Duke Bennett took a ride on the aluminum boat Wednesday to observe SWR in action.

THFD currently has 62 of its 150 firefighters trained in swift water rescue, and another dozen were receiving training Wednesday. They'll receive training on contending with ice later in the year.

Initially, Berry wanted a third of his force trained and has well exceeded that number. In the past, the Sugar Creek Fire Department in West Terre Haute performed the area's swift water rescues. The two fire departments have always worked together; now, they can assist one another in water emergencies.

Terre Haute's swift water rescue technicians will work from Stations 2 and 5. The city has an aluminum boat for rescues, as well as an inflatable dinghy. The aluminum boat will be housed at Station 2, closest to the river. Rescuers could reach the river "within a matter of minutes," Berry said.

"We're excited, the guys are excited," he added. "It's something that's long overdue, and something we need to have in the fire department."

The teams will also rescue citizens in need in the city's lakes and ponds, and will perform when flash flooding becomes an issue, as well.

"It is a great service we're adding to the community," Bennett said. "We have more water rescues than people think sometimes; we just had one at Maple Avenue Park recently. These things happen, and we need to have a quick response and the right-trained people. If we get a call today, we're ready to respond."

"It was three young boys in a kayak — I believe none of them had life jackets and two of them did not know how to swim," Berry recalled. "They flipped that kayak. Fortunately, there was a by-stander who swam out and got both of those boys. He basically saved their lives. He will be recognized at our awards banquet next year."

Bennett added, "That was at a lake in the city. A lot of times, people haven't thought about that. They think about the river [being potentially dangerous] — we need to be able to respond everywhere in the city of Terre Haute."

Berry noted that those attempting rescues do so judiciously and have a personal flotation device or a life jacket when performing a rescue, "But obviously, people are going to do what they have to do to save a kid or anybody. That's a matter of seconds and minutes and we still might not have been able to get there in time."

Bill Matney, who has been training water rescue techniques for 45 years and is now the owner and CEO of the Kentucky-based Bill Matney Rescue Training, said the most important thing he teaches his trainees is "to not get killed. To not die in the water. Our stated goal is to drown-proof them, and we do that by training, practice, experience and judgment.

The danger in river rescues, Matney said, is "They're not prepared for the violence of moving water. When you stop and the water keeps moving, it'll petrify you. The No. 1 thing that victims say to you when you get them out of the water is, 'I had no idea how powerful the water is.' You have to have exposure to it, just like going into combat. In training, they shoot bullets over your head so you'll know what they sound like. This is what it feels like, and they have to acquire that skill."

There are a number of classes rescuers must take to be certified water rescue technicians. In addition to the water rescue technician class (three days of hands-on training in the water), there's an awareness class, operations class, and a rope technician course.

Ropes have many purposes for the swift water rescuer. In an exercise being performed Wednesday, inflatable boats were flipped over, and teams of three had to correct its position in the water. Two would stand atop the boat's underside and tether ropes to one side of the boat, then lean in the other direction and use their weight to flip it back over and land in the water. The other rescuer, underwater, would push the boat up from beneath and hold on and ends up inside the boat.

It was a tricky maneuver — the person trying to pull himself into the boat wouldn't always manage that feat cleanly.

Matney gave the THFD trainees high marks for their efforts. "They're outstanding," he said. "They're far and away ahead of most organizations."

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(c)2022 The Tribune-Star (Terre Haute, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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