First to dive in
Purdy, Aurora Rural fire districts staff swift water rescue team
Typically, firefighters are thought of as the brave heroes who rush into raging infernos to save lives and property, but for one team of Purdy firefighters, water is the enemy and every heavy rain a cause for concern.
The Purdy Fire and Aurora Rural fire districts have combined to field the region’s first swift water rescue team.
Purdy Fire Chief Nick Mercer said the district has two boat operators and seven technicians who are certified to rescue residents stranded by fast-moving floodwaters by utilizing a rescue boats, ropes and other specialized equipment.
The swift water rescue team members go through extensive training that covers boat operations and rope and pulley rescue systems with focus on methods of rescuing victims without putting a boat in the water.
Mercer said the department houses a special swift water rescue boat that is safer to operate in fast-moving flood waters than a flat-bottom boat, but conditions are not always safe for boat rescues.
The idea to house a swift water rescue team locally came in 2015, when Purdy firefighters learned first-hand how dangerous floodwaters can be and were forced to contact the Missouri Highway Patrol for assistance as they were caught in rising waters.
In 2017, the department received a grant to begin training for swift water rescues and to purchase the necessary, specialized equipment.
“This year, we partnered with Aurora Rural Fire to send some of their firefighters to training for certification,” Mercer said. “That will give us better coverage and more trained staff.”
Currently Aurora has one firefighter trained in swift water rescues and a couple more awaiting certification.
“The more people we have trained, the easier it is because there are a lot of factors involved,” Mercer said. “We have four or five technicians out per rescue, and there are guys on shore monitoring conditions and making calls as things change.”
Swift water training is expensive, costing approximately $800 per person for the training alone, plus travel, food and lodging costs.
Mercer said the expense is worth it when weighed against the dangers of fast-flowing water.
“Drowning is the number one cause of natural disaster deaths in southwest Missouri, and with the construction and population growth, it’s only going to get worse,” he said.
The flooding Lawrence County experienced this week is proof that those concerns are real.
“We had two vehicles in Spring River that were swept away and weren’t found until the next day,” Mercer said. “We had floodwaters over [Highway] 60. I’ve never seen flooding over 60 in my life.”
Mercer said the swift water rescue team was prepared for this week’s storm, and firefighters had mobilized at the fire station long before the first calls for help came in at 11:40 p.m. Monday.
“We have an internal messaging group, and we were tracking the weather,” he said. “The soil was saturated already, and we knew that any amount of rainfall could have caused runoff. The key to our success was that we were prepped with all our resources hooked up 45 minutes before we even got a call.”
Mercer also said two rescuers had completed a training operation the night before the call came in.
Mercer also said the team has been on high alert, with more frequent calls than usual. Typically, he said the team can expect one or two calls a year. So far in 2021, the team has responded to three separate emergencies: flooding at Roaring River in late April, a vehicle that had had hydroplaned on wet roads and crashed into the river near McDowell, and the widespread flooding this past week.
While the swift water rescue crew is available in the case of an emergency, Mercer said residents should always be cautious with flood water or fast-moving streams or rivers.
“The feeling of everyone on the team is that swift water rescues are multiple times more dangerous than fighting fires because there are so many variables,” he said. “‘Turn around, don’t drown’ is key — it’s something we push so people don’t end up in dangerous situations.”