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Firefighters learn river rescue

Valley Fire team trains for swift water saves

Members of the Spokane Valley Fire Department spent some time fishing with “live bait” last week, but it had nothing to do with landing trout. They were fishing their fellow firefighters out of the cold, swollen Spokane River as they trained for their new roles on the department’s first swift water rescue team.

Calls of “swimmer” ring out when the first firefighter enters the water wearing a suit designed to protect against the cold. One rescuer wades a few feet into the swiftly flowing river clutching a rope. Several other firefighters line the river shore with more ropes in case the first rescuer misses. As the “swimmer” floats by, the firefighter jumps off the rock to grab him so both can be pulled to safety by a rope tied to the rescuers waist.

Trainer Ryan Murphy of Spokane River Rescue critiqued the rescue done by Jeff Powell. “It was a second too soon,” he said of Powell’s leap off the rock.

The next run through went better. For the third, no one was on the rock in the river. The team was relying entirely on the ropes thrown by firefighters on the shore and the man in the water caught the first one. The fourth rescue, however, ended up being what they call a “self rescue.” This time it was Powell’s turn being the one rescued, and he missed all four ropes thrown to him from shore as he floated quickly downstream. He shook his head, then started swimming for shore. He quickly made it into an eddy and climbed out.

“I got out there a little farther than I thought,” he said. “I had it (the rope) for just a second.”

At the end of the day, Murphy said he was pleased by how well everyone did. None of the firefighters had any previous experience in doing swift water rescues, he said. “I nitpick because I want them to be on the ball,” he said. “No one comes out and does it right the first time. They’re doing a really good job.”

Battalion chief Dennis Doyle, who has done most of the work of putting the team together, said he wasn’t bothered by errors. “Sometimes you learn more from mistakes than things that go well,” he said.

All of the 21 firefighters on the new swift water rescue team are volunteers. About 40 people applied and most said they wanted to be a part of the team because they thought it was needed, Doyle said. That was made abundantly clear last year when a rafter was pinned against a pier at the Barker Road Bridge and had to be rescued. Firefighters cut a hole in the temporary planking of the bridge, which was under construction, and lowered firefighter Dave Griffiths down to the woman on a rope.

“I was in water up to my waist,” said Griffiths, who is part of the new swift water rescue team. He had no wet suit or other specialized gear and quickly grew numb even though he was only in the water for 10 minutes. Now that he knows more about how to do such rescues, Griffiths thinks they went about it the right way. “Even with all this training, it was the safest way to do it,” he said.

“The rescue could have gone smoother and safer if we had the training,” said Doyle.

The fire commissioners approved spending about $25,000 on suits, helmets, life jackets, gloves and boots for each member of the team. Almost all the new team members were on the department’s technical rescue team and already had the required rope training. Along the way Doyle said he has consulted with the Spokane Fire Department, which has its own swift water rescue team. “They’ve been very supportive of us,” he said. “With their help we can really come up to speed quicker.”

Bob Leaming has been with Spokane Valley Fire for 15 years and was glad to get on the team. “I enjoy this type of stuff,” he said. “I spend a lot of time on the river on my off time.”

He said a lot of the training emphasized how to read the river and how to self rescue. “That’s what a big part of this training is, is to learn that.”

With the river training complete for now, the next step is to send four firefighters to advanced training. Even after the team goes active on June 1, specialized training will be held every week. Once the team is officially up and running, there will be seven members of the team assigned to each shift, with a minimum of three on duty at any given time. Doyle is confident that the next time someone gets in trouble on the river, the department will be ready.

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