Southwest Florida is largely defined by its waterways. Local waters are used for recreation, commerce, transportation and industry. Occasionally an emergency happens.
During a water emergency every second counts and when a water emergency occurs, such as a boat fire, a car in a canal or a person in trouble in the water, the fire department is usually the first on the scene.
This week Lee County Co-Op Water Resource Training teams conducted their quarterly drills to better prepare firefighters for water emergencies. Thirty firefighters from 18 fire districts in the region met in Pine Island to review procedures in handling water incidents. The training sessions occurred over a three-day period - Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
"This is where we teach firefighters and those on rescue vehicles how to handle water emergencies," Cape Coral Battalion Chief Timothy Clark said. "We teach them the skills to perform a surface water rescue."
There was a morning session at the Pine Island pool Thursday and an afternoon session where the firefighters were taken out into the open waters of Pine Island Sound.
"During the open water sessions different scenarios are presented and the firefighters are trained under more realistic conditions," said Capt. Michael Heeder, spokesperson for the Cape Coral Fire Department. "First we train them in the pool and then they graduate to open water. It's a gradual process so they learn how to handle the real thing is small steps."
"At the bottom of the pool there is a 'rescue vehicle,'" Heeder said. "This is actually a plastic car made from PVC. Once submerged, it simulates an automobile under water where firefighters can retrieve someone from a car in a canal. It seems we've had quite a few of those recently. Under ideal circumstances we'd like to send someone in with scuba gear but that's not always possible. Teaching them the proper skills to be safe under water and to get people out of danger safely is what we are doing here today."
There were four primary areas covered at the Pine Island pool - car search, backer board, bunker gear and surface rescue. Each team from each fire department was given an opportunity at all four sessions.
For the car search portion the firefighters wore goggles with the lens sand blasted.
"In order to simulate the very limited vision a firefighter would have in a canal we sandblasted the lenses of the goggles," Heeder said. "The goggles protect their eyes and at the same time makes them almost blind. It helps them learn to move around a wreck site by feel and enhance their ability to do what needs to be done without actually seeing."
The Backer Board station is where someone in trouble, possibly with a back or neck injury, is rescued from the water. They are carefully positioned on a board and then removed from the water.
There are also cases where firefighters at a house fire, with lots of smoke, will fall into a pool or at a marina fire, fall off a dock. This is where firefighter survival techniques come into play. At the diving board end of the pool firefighters in full protective gear would kneel on the end of the diving board and then fall into the pool. Learning how to cope with the unexpected is a big part of their training.
Firefighters are trained to handle the most difficult situations. Lehigh Acres firefighter Dennis Welsh, 30, has been a firefighter for five years. He worked for a volunteer fire department for a couple of years and then three years with the Lehigh Acres Fire Department. He recently pulled a woman from a car in a canal.
"The training is definitely helpful even if you only get partially in the water," Welsh said. "Just as the trainers said I couldn't get the door open. The car was partially buried in the mud. From the training I knew exactly what to do. I broke the window to get the woman out."
Post 9/11, state-of-the art equipment is standard for all fired departments. Cape Coral has four marine units strategically positioned around Cape Coral, with two boats in slips on the water and ready for immediate deployment when needed. The other two are trailered in fire stations near the water and support rescue efforts in the canals where the larger boat cannot navigate due to the depth or bridges in the city of Cape Coral. Each fire engine carries dive equipment and all Cape Coral firefighters receive training in diving.
Pine Island/Matlacha has a 1990 24-foot Carolina Skiff. Powered by a 2001 Mercury 115 Four-Stroke. This boat has medical and firefighting equipment. In 2001 they secured a grant from the West Coast Inland Navigational Fund for re-powering and the addition of some electronic equipment. This included, GPS, Radar, Chart Plotter and Marine VHF. The boat is staffed by the on- duty personnel. Each person that is assigned to respond in the boat must pass a boat safety course and must meet other requirements as set down by the boat coordinator.
"Making sure our first responders are trained in water resource skills is a crucial part of their training," Heeder said. "Their job is to save lives and they take that job very seriously. These firefighters are the best I've ever worked with."
The training sessions are scheduled four times a year. The next will be in November.