(Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian)
WASHOUGAL — Overcast skies and frigid water didn’t keep a group of firefighters from taking a dip in the Washougal River late last month.
The group, made up of members of the Region 4 Technical Rescue Team, was practicing the water rescue techniques it expects to use as warmer weather prompts people to start enjoying Southwest Washington’s lakes and rivers.
“Guys that do tech rescue don’t burn out, they rust,” said Bill Dunlap, technical rescue team coordinator with Clark County Fire District 6.
The team, which serves Clark, Skamania, Wahkiakum and Cowlitz Counties, is made up of firefighters from Clark County Fire District 6, the Vancouver Fire Department and Clark County Fire & Rescue. They specialize in water, rope, confined space and trench rescue and are also trained in urban search and rescue.
Some things they need to do are high-risk but happen so infrequently that it makes training and drills a necessity, Dunlap said.
Water rescue was the focus in late April. Firefighters wearing fleece jumpsuits underneath dry suits took turns jumping into water just upstream of the Big Eddy near milepost 8 of Wash
ougal River Road. Firefighters on shore threw rope lines to colleagues in the water who were playing the victim. The trick is to get the rope to go right over the victim or just downstream of them, said Capt. Geoff Robbins, with Vancouver Fire Department. Once a victim grabs hold, the water flow swings him or her toward the shore while the firefighter holding the rope stays in place.
Later, the group practiced live bait rescue, where a firefighter attached to a rope floats out to a victim in the water, grabs them and brings them to shore.
“When we decide we’re going to do that, it’s our last option before getting a helicopter to come in,” Fire District 6’s Dunlap said. That isn’t really an option at the Big Eddy, he added as he pointed at tree canopies flanking the riverbanks.
Robbins, a former lifeguard from San Diego, said the Big Eddy is one of the busy spots for swimmers (and the team) in the summer. Dougan Falls in Skamania County and the Sandy Swimming Hole near the city of Washougal are also popular, he said.
Clark County Fire District 5 had a tech rescue team in the early 1990s that became a part of the Vancouver Fire Department when it merged with the district in 1994, said Division Chief Steve Eldred, head of emergency services for the department.
Vancouver Fire and Fire District 6’s teams, which already trained together, came together to form Region 4 Technical Rescue after Sept. 11, 2001, he said. The effort has spurred by 911 grant funds that became available for regional rescue teams.
“Most of the equipment and a good part of the training is all funded through grants,” Eldred said.
The team now is called out when necessary to help other agencies in its four-county area.
That happened the afternoon of April 22 when two people flipped their inflatable kayaks near the Big Eddy. East County Fire & Rescue responded and asked for tech rescue’s assistance.
Technical rescue isn’t always requested, but when it is, East County tries to help the team by figuring out what area to search, said Chief Scott Koehler.
That helps the team when it arrives, Dunlap said. Once tech rescue does it’s thing, it hands the patient over to the host agency and lets them take over the rest of the operation, he said.
The team responded to 14 live rescues and four body recoveries in 2010, Dunlap said. Numbers for 2011 weren’t immediately available.
In July 2010, the team resuscitated Kea Rodrigues, who spent more than an hour in the water near Dougan Falls with his legs stuck under a rock. Dozens of bystanders at the falls held his head up for air and attempted to free him while rescue personnel traveled to the scene. The boy, who was 14 at the time, was flown by Life Flight to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center with a body temperature of 84 degrees. He has since made a full recovery, Dunlap said.