Maritime-ready KPFD initiates multiagency water-rescue drill


Rodika Tollefson, KP News

When embarrassing accidents happen, most people would want to fling the mishap tale to the depths of the sea. Not rescuers with Fire District 16. After a boat collision during routine training last year, instead of forgetting about the moment, FD-16 decided to share the lesson learned with other districts. What started as an idea for a small-caliber show and tell instead turned into a drill involving 11 agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard.

FD-16 practices a rescue using a raft from another agency. Photo by Karina Whitmarsh

In May, these agencies’ rescue teams (and their personal watercrafts, boats, and in case of USGS, a helicopter) converged on the beach of Browns Point for an eight-hour exercise involving theory and practice.

“It (planning) started out small and turned into this humongous event,” says Guy Allen, division chief with FD-16, who was one of the main organizers of the exercise and watched it from the shore. “This is the first time in Pierce County where we had all those water rescue resources.”

Those resources included Gig Harbor’s and Tacoma’s fire and police departments; fire departments from McNeil Island, Browns Point, Anderson Island and South King; Pierce County Sheriff’s Department; Puyallup Tribal Police and USGS. Planning took a good six months, with more and more agencies jumping on board.

Eight water rescue technicians from FD-16 participated in the drill, which included practicing rescue of unconscious and conscious victims and transferring them to a boat.

FD-16’s Hal Wolverton during one of the exercises. Photo by Karina Whitmarsh

After receiving some instructional time, the rescuers watched each other perform the rescues. “We learned new techniques the other agencies are using,” says Tim Davis, an FD-16 firefighter who participated in the drill.

They took turns playing the victim. Later in the day, some also got to be “rescued” by the Coast Guard in a basket that was lowered from the helicopter, as teammates stood in the water nearby to get a taste of what it’s like to have a chopper blasting air and water at them.

“It’s like being in a hurricane,” Davis says. “The wash is kicking up the wave, and you can’t breathe.” FD-16 firefighter Tony Carr drew the short straw to play victim, whisked up in the basket, which he found fun and a bit …well, tight. “I didn’t know the basket was actually that small,” he says. “It was like being in a rainstorm, with pellets hitting you in the face. It was great to feel that, so you know what it’s like.”

The exercise was designed to help the agencies work better together and be aware of each other’s resources. Some already respond simultaneously to the same rescue operations, and this gave them the opportunity to learn who all the players are countywide and develop an element of trust. “The best part was the chance to meet all the different agencies that may be responding to a South Sound event,” Carr says.

Dozens of rescuers from around the county participated in the drill.

Allen says the district’s training accident had emphasized that communication is a major point of a rescue operation—and that’s what this multiagency drill helped improve. One result of the drill planning was getting linked into marine channel 21A, which will serve as the Puget Sound marine search and rescue channel. “It’s a much more effective communication tools and use of resources in the long run,” he says.

The drill was funded through a Homeland Security training grant spearheaded by Browns Point Fire District. Asked how successful this event was, Browns Point Assistant Chief Cliff McCollum, who served as the operations chief for the drill, says, “It was fabulous. Turnout was excellent. It met all our goals, plus.”