November 15, 1996 in Idaho

Putting On Airs Rescue Workers Train On Hovercraft

By The Spokesman-Review

Decked out in rain slickers from head to toe, rescue workers from Harrison looked like overgrown children as they took turns playing with a Hovercraft Thursday.

The red Hovercraft, with its ballooning neoprene nylon skirt, resembled a big bumper car as emergency medical technicians zoomed around the parking area of the Rainy Hill boat launch.

“Where’s the brake,” joked Fred Muhs, president of the Harrison Ambulance Association, as he climbed into the Johnny Quest contraption that he called a “big-boy toy.”

Autumn leaves billowed and mud puddles spattered as he negotiated tight turns on a pocket of air.

Lingering underneath their buoyant moods was the serious side of the day’s training and the memory of last winter’s tragedy in St. Maries.

Daniel Shaw and Jason Moore, both 17, died after breaking through thinning ice on a pond in early March.

As they struggled in the freezing water, St. Maries firefighters crawled out onto the ice in thick rescue suits. The rescuers also broke through the ice, however, and could not reach the boys.

“If we’d had one of them (Hovercrafts) in St. Maries last year, it might have saved the kids who went through the ice,” said Dale Wight, a school bus driver and member of the Harrison Ambulance Association.

That speculation was repeated by several firefighters and ambulance volunteers who took part in Thursday’s training.

The Hovercraft they trained on belongs to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is loaning it to the communities of Harrison and St. Maries in return for a place to store it.

The wildlife agency uses the Hovercraft for scientific surveys in sensitive habitats, such as the wetlands upstream from Harrison.

Because it rides on a cushion of air, it can travel in shallow areas without causing any damage.

“You can go right over a bird’s nest and not disturb it,” said Don Audet of the USFWS.

“In these kinds of wetlands, they’re really nice,” he added, referring to the marshy areas on Medicine Lake, where co-worker Mark Snyder demonstrated handling the Hovercraft over water.

The ambulance association has an extra bay in its garage to store the Hovercraft, which can carry two people. The association will maintain the craft, and it will be available for Harrison and St. Maries rescue organizations.

“We feel really privileged,” Muhs said.

The Hovercraft will be especially useful for ice rescues, he said. Over water, Muhs and other trainees discovered, the air bubble has a tendency to deflate, slowing its progress.

But on ice, Hovercrafts have been clocked at about 80 miles per hour. Because it handles differently over ice, Snyder and Audet said they would return for another training session in December.

Hovercrafts are rare as rescue tools in North Idaho, because they cost about $7,000 to $9,000 each and are used so infrequently.

One was donated last year to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, which is planning to train rescuers with the Hovercraft this fall, said Capt. Ben Wolfinger.

, DataTimes

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