When the tones break the stillness inside Muscatine Fire Department station, all normal activity ceases. They listen, recognizing what each one means, and then spring into action as the dispatcher begins his or her announcement.
Even though they may know the type of incident and the location, there is still the unanswerable question of what the responders will find upon arrival. And that is where training comes in.
“We train every day for as many different scenarios as we can think of,” Fire Chief Jerry Ewers said. “That training allows us to respond quicker, and better protect the safety of our firefighters and those we are assisting.”
Fire Captain Harold Bennitt’s Green Shift had already responded to several calls on Monday, Feb. 5, but when the tones sounded at 4:26 p.m. that day were different. It was not a fire call, an accident, or a medical problem … someone was in the Mississippi River.
“I was not the incident commander on this call,” Bennitt said. “Battalion Chief Brian Abbott was, so I was in the back seat with another firefighter.”
As the truck rolled out of the station with the paramedic units, a thousand thoughts and questions flash though the mind. Among them were if the incident was witnessed or was this just someone who thought they saw something in the river. Chief Abbott radioed enroute to the old boat launch area inside Riverside Park to confirm the call.
“Yes,” the voice on the other end of the radio said. “We had two 911 calls on it.”
Bennitt knew that he and the firefighter next to him (Jonathan Wieland) were going to be the first in the water so they began to put on their cold water suits.
“Basically we knew that we were going to be the first in the water so we were thinking of what we needed to do,” Bennitt said. “When it was confirmed, reality really sank it.”
Called Mustang Suits (perhaps due to their yellow color), the cold water suits keep responders warm and dry should they need to get into the river or go out on the ice. An upgrade to the current suits was approved by the Muscatine City Council last November which will provide greater protection and a greater number of suits available for water and ice rescues.
Bennitt was assigned by Chief Abbott to be the spotter during the rescue.
“If we see anything, you are going to have to follow and make sure you watch and see what’s going on,” Abbott told Bennitt.
When rescue personnel arrive at the scene, Bennitt takes off the cold water suit, puts on his regular gear, grabs binoculars and a thermal imager that rescuers can use to see the difference in color and heat, and headed for the shoreline.
“You don’t think there is a lot of stress but truly there is a lot of stress,” Bennitt said. “I really cannot describe what is running through your mind. Where are they in the river, how far out, can we get to them, is the victim alive, are they moving, how cold is the water, what is the temperature and wind like, did they hit ice, are they on the ice … just a million things going through your mind.”
Although it does not relieve the stress, training helps the mind to focus on specific assignments. For Bennitt that was locating and tracking the victim while others began the rescue effort.
“Luckily, we spotted the victim in the river right away,” Bennitt said. “So I fixated on the victim and that is all I did.”
The rest of what was going on was also on his mind but he was able to separate himself from that and remain focused on his assigned task.
“Of course we all want to do things but I knew that I had to stay with the patient,” Bennitt said. “At that point I just relinquished everything and followed her past Contrary Brewing on the riverfront. I walked along the riverbank following her, keeping an eye on her so the others could get to her.”
The Muscatine Fire Department had been training for water rescues the two weeks prior to the incident and had another water rescue training session scheduled that day. That training proved valuable to everyone involved whether tracking the victim, breaking the ice to launch the boat, being in the boat for the rescue, or clearing snow off the ramp to allow the stretcher to be brought down to the shoreline.
While walking the shoreline downstream of the staging area, Bennitt admitted that while remaining fixed on the victim he was still wondering what was going on at the ramp and where the boat was.
“Your mind is so focused on the task that you lose track of time,” Bennitt said. “Everything happens way quicker than what your mind tells you it is. What seems like 15 minutes is just three or four.”
When the Chief told Bennitt that the victim was out of the water in just over a half hour from the time of arrival at the scene Bennitt thought that he was kidding.
“I really thought it had taken longer than that,” Bennitt said, “but you really do lose track of time because you are so focused.”
Training … Training … Training
Firefighters benefitted from two weeks of training at night in the harbor as each shift took a turn doing everything necessary for a water rescue. Each scenario was accompanied by each firefighter working different assignments.
“Learning each task creates a better team environment because you know you can trust the person next to you and you are confident in any task assigned to you during an actual rescue,” Assistant Fire Chief Mike Hartman said.
That training contributed to a highly efficient and timely rescue despite problems such as excessive ice build-up at the boat launch site.
“This was still one of the smoothest winter water rescues that I have seen,” Hartman said.
Bennitt noted that the training really helps when you get into uncommon situations like a winter water rescue.
“Training like we had in the last couple of weeks really helps,” Bennitt said. “Training gives you muscle memory so you know what to expect if you had to get into the water. We do train to get into the water.”
Although trained to get into the water, the victim was so far out during the Feb. 5 rescue that there was no way rescue personnel could get into the water to do anything.
“That is a real helpless feeling,” Bennitt said. “The helpless feeling is that you cannot do anything until we get our resources there. You can see and you want to do but you can’t. That’s really the bad part.”
Despite that feeling, the training kept Bennitt focused on his task.
“Luckily I was able to keep an eye on her and guided the boat right to her,” Bennitt said. “The personnel in the boat could not see her so I had to guide them toward her. The search and rescue guys, our guys, the sheriff’s dive team were to her in less five minutes and back on shore in less than another two or three minutes.”
Water rescues are not the only type of training the fire department does on a daily basis. Firefighters also train on other types of rescues which they could, or have, encounter including auto extrication, confined space, high-angle, trench, and rescues inside of burning structures. This includes the tactical emergency medical services teams (three member teams that respond with the Muscatine Police Department’s Special Response Team (SRT) during high risk situations. Training also involves attacking and containing fires, and fire prevention.
If a need is found through research or reality, a training program is developed and implemented.
A New Boat?
Everyone involved with the rescue last week met in the Public Safety Building to review every step of the rescue process from the initial tone to the transport of the victim to the hospital. One of the needs being addressed for winter water rescues is the need for a Zodiac type of boat that can be pushed out over ice before dropping the motor in open water.
The Muscatine Search and Rescue Unit, an all-volunteer organization, has a flat-bottom boat that was utilized in the most recent water rescue. The Muscatine County Sheriff’s Department also has a v-bottom boat that is kept in the harbor when the harbor is open.
The Muscatine Fire Department is currently collecting data on different types of boats that could be utilized in all weather conditions.
So What Is Next
It has been four years since rescue personnel have been involved in a winter water rescue of this nature and the hope is that it will be a long time before they will have to do it again.
“But if we are called, we will be ready,” Hartman said.
Hartman also said that the review of the rescue went well with representatives from all the agencies involved. The review focused on how to improve with several suggestions being followed up on.
“Most notably, in my view, is the development of a county wide response plan where, regardless of jurisdiction, we all know who is responsible for what,” Hartman said.
An example of this coordination is that the divers are coordinated under the sheriff, surface rescue with the Search and Rescue group along with the fire department, and site security handed by local police with assistance from the sheriff.
More discussions will be held to further develop and enhance the plan.
-Kevin Jenison, Communications Manager