Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Firefighters test their water rescue skills


Specially trained firefighters dropped from a helicopter and sped across the water on jet skis on their way to rescue nearly 50 “victims” of a simulated downed aircraft near the Goleta Pier on Tuesday morning.
An annual drill for emergency water rescue personnel, the simulation gave firefighters a chance to exercise their skills and work out any issues in preparation for the worst-case scenario — an actual water landing off the Santa Barbara coast.

“You need to do a hard rescue like this at least once a year to keep up,” County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow said. “…The only way we get to be good at this and remain good at this is to practice.”
Four large rafts lashed together and loaded up with 49 volunteers from UC Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College represented the downed jetliner, which in this scenario had mechanical issues due to “bird ingestion.”
After receiving word from the airport tower that a plane had gone off radar and a call from a witness on the beach who reported seeing the plane ditch near the pier, emergency crews jumped into action, with the county fire helicopter on scene from its Santa Ynez base in a matter of minutes. Firefighters from the County Fire Department and Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District launched jet skis from the beach and headed out to the crash site, quickly dropping green dye in the water to mark the location.
“The biggest concern we have in a large crash is exposure to the elements,” Capt. Iskow said, explaining that while the crash may have injured and killed passengers, leaving them floating in frigid water for any extended period of time would have a drastic effect.
“We need to get people out of the water,” he said as rescue swimmers who had jumped from the helicopter started inflating large rafts. Firefighters then piloted their jet skis next to injured victims, pulling them onto rescue sleds and taking them to the rafts.
Although they took the red-tagged victims first — those most critically injured — county firefighter and water rescuer George Georgas said in a real crash the scene would likely be chaotic and difficult to identify those most in need.
“The reality is you’d probably grab who you can and get them in a raft,” he said.
Based out of Station 32 in Santa Ynez, Georgas said his station and Goleta’s Station 11 have a water rescue program, which includes specialized training and drills in heavy surf and rough conditions.
“You hope for the best and plan for the worst,” he said.
Once they had pulled all the victims from the water, firefighters started transporting them to the nearby 87-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter Blackfin and Mr. Clean, a civilian vessel from the Clean Seas organization. A Coast Guard helicopter hovered nearby and practiced hoist operations from the Blackfin.
Those with immediate medical need would be hoisted into helicopters from the sea or those vessels and taken to local hospitals, Capt. Iskow said. Others would be taken to the pier or shore after receiving treatment.
With the drill winding down, fire officials seemed pleased with the results.
“Everyone was out of the water and into a safe spot in 20 to 25 minutes,” Capt. Iskow said. “That’s great timing.”
“It went just like it was planned,” Georgas said. “…It’s fun because we can get out there and show everyone what we’re capable of.”
After the victims had been transported away from the “wreckage,” four rescue swimmers were hoisted back up to the helicopter and taken to shore. Other than a minor safety alert when several rafts started drifting under the hovering helicopter, there were no serious issues during the drill, Georgas said.
As for the student volunteers, many of them sorority members from UCSB’s Kappa Alpha Theta, the simulation was relaxed and safe, with the firefighters keeping them out of the water until the last moment to make sure they didn’t get hypothermia.
“It was all very lighthearted,” said junior Valerie Donati.
Although she missed class and work, Donati said she told her teachers she was volunteering for a water rescue drill and they were all supportive.

No comments: