Firefighters describe difference between life and death on the river
The most dramatic images of firefighters often depict them emerging from a building engulfed in flames, a person draped across their arms, or making their way down a ladder high in the air, a child held tightly to their chest.
Rescues from burning buildings happen, but are rare. In fact, firefighters with the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District more commonly conduct water rescues, having averaged nearly three per week this spring and summer.
Captain Jeffrey Frye, one of 47 of the district’s firefighters qualified in water rescue, said at some of the stations, like Station 29 in Knights Ferry where he works, firefighters respond to more water rescues than structure or brush fires.
“We save more lives on a weekly basis on this river alone than ... anywhere else in the entire county,” he said while on the Stanislaus River in one of the district’s five boats. “Just think about how often you hear about a firefighter pulling someone out of a burning building and saving their life. That is a very significant event but we are doing an equally significant event every week on this river when people get into trouble and we are their only hope.”
Before the summer was half over, the 60 rescues this year – mostly on the Stanislaus River but also on the Tuolumne River, Turlock Lake and Modesto and Woodward reservoirs – had surpassed the 50 in all of 2016. There were 13 in 2015.
A rescue is counted as one incident but multiple people – like the nine who were knocked out of their raft when it hit a tree – are usually rescued during each incident. Several of the 2017 incidents involved drownings at both reservoirs and on the Stanislaus River.
“It’s just unprepared kayakers and rafters that have gone down this river for 10 or 15 years at low flows ... and they get in without looking up the data and assume everything is going to be fine until they hit Russian Rapids (west of the Knights Ferry Fire station) which is flowing 1,400 (cubic feet per second) right now and it is a significant change,” Frye said. “If you are not experienced or going with an experienced person, it is very deadly, and that is multiplied when you don’t wear a life vest.”
That’s where firefighters trained for water rescues become imperative. It’s all in the technique, understanding how to navigate the boat and working fast.
Firefighters carry ropes with them on the boat to aid in some of the rescues but rarely use them on the water because people can get tangled up in them and most are too exhausted to hold onto them anyway, said Engineer Mike Anderson.
Instead, firefighters trained in water rescue learn techniques that make it easier to pull people into the boat, like making sharp turns to lower one side of the boat into the water, creating a smaller hump to pull the victim over, said Battalion Chief Eric DeHart.
If the person is wearing a life jacket, the rescuer sometimes will dunk them under water so that the buoyancy of the life jacket will provide more momentum as they come back up out of the water and into the boat.
In a last-case scenario, a firefighter will enter the water with the victim to help get them in. But it’s dangerous for the firefighter, and not something they have to do often, DeHart said.
“People who are rescued will literally lay on the bottom of the boat and not be able to move because they will have spend 15, 20 minutes in the water and their bodies are paralyzed,” Frye said. “They have no energy, they are just zapped, and if it wasn’t for the life vest they would have been under.”
DeHart estimates more than half of the rescues involve people who chose not to wear life jackets and nearly all victims of drowning are not wearing them.
The minimum response to a water rescue – two boats, one engine and a battalion chief – costs about $300 an hour for personnel and equipment operation.
Stanislaus Consolidated Chief Rick Weigele said the district has discussed the idea of charging people – specifically those not wearing life vests – for rescues, but it would involve a countywide effort to develop language about safety regulations on the rivers and the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department to enforce the regulations.
Weigele said he’d rather focus on educating people than penalizing them.
What Frye recommends to those who fall into the water is to position your body so that you are on your back and your feet are downstream. Float until a rescuer can get to you or you find an open shore to swim to or something to grab onto that is free of dangerous obstructions.
While instinct might lead some toward a shore to get out of the water as fast as possible, Frye warns to avoid shorelines with heavy vegetation. Branches and other debris can build up along the vegetation, creating a strainer, which only lets water pass through.
It’s easy to get tangled up in the vegetation and pulled under.
“What happens is you have an excessive amount of force pushing against a blockage like a beaver dam,” Frye said. “Anything that gets trapped against it can’t get out of it. Water is a major force. Water doesn’t compress. It pushes through everything in its way, and a human body is no match for the force of water.”
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