Firefighters practice water rescue skills at DeGray Lake

By Wayne Bryan Published June 12, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Steve Heide, left, and Mike Prichar of the Caddo Valley Fire Department speed around the rolling current on the Caddo River to learn how to maneuver in a strong current.

For boaters on DeGray Lake and anyone cruising along the Caddo River on Saturday, the activity could have been a little alarming. Both waterways had emergency craft running from place to place, often blaring sirens as helicopters zoomed overhead.

The lake near Bismarck and a stretch of the Caddo River below DeGray Dam were the settings of the 11th annual Arkansas Fire Boat School. The school is organized and run by a network of fire departments from around the state that operate fire and rescue watercraft.

The school is held each June in coordination with the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas Fire Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Arkansas Department of Health and the Emergency Preparedness Office of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Bill Barnes, chief of the Joplin Volunteer Fire Department on Lake Ouachita in Montgomery County and a member of the Arkansas Fire Boat Committee, said the drill is the largest water-rescue training event in the nation.

“We recognized the need for different departments to train together so we could work together when something really bad happens,” Barnes said. “The school makes us better boaters, better firefighters, as well as better search-and-rescue people.”

Adriane Barnes, public-information coordinator for the Arkansas Forestry Commission, said 35 fire departments from 16 Arkansas

counties, along with two fire departments from Texas and one from Mississippi, trained Saturday as a statewide fleet in water emergency-response exercises. Some 325 professional and volunteer firefighters took part in the training.

The forestry agency has helped fire departments in rural areas of the state obtain fireboats, ranging from 16 feet long to 47 feet, using federal grants and the Federal Excess Property in Rural Areas Program.

“Sometimes there are forest fires in deep rural areas without proper roads, where most fire equipment could not go, but they could be reached from a lake or river,” the forestry commission spokeswoman said. “DeGray Lake was host to seven large-boat scenarios, while small boats trained on skills needed on Arkansas rivers and smaller waterways in four scenarios on the river.”

The exercises were observed by wildlife officers from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission who would judge the performance of the boat crews and offer advice.

A joint exercise for all the boats was held at 4 p.m. Known as the Grand Finale, the problem presented in the exercise was kept secret until the call went out to all the boats.

The scenario created for the exercise was that during a lakeside fireworks display, a private plane flying over the lake had engine trouble and hit a houseboat, then crashed into the lake, with the tail section ending up on shore.

“Everybody’s coming to that one,” said one of the school officials, who gave reporters an early rundown on the final problem of the day.

Other exercises included a wild-land fire in a remote location not far from the lake shoreline. Another scenario known as Urban Slackwater was a rescue mission for a flooded community, where people were stranded on the rooftops of flooded buildings. Also with stranded survivors, rescuers had to deal with a broken gas line and a fire.

This flood rescue, which was overseen by Doug Coney, assistant of operations for the Little Rock Fire Department, utilized the Coast Guard helicopter that came from the Coast Guard station in Mobile, Alabama, to take part in the fireboat school.

Lt. Cmdr. David Block, chief of emergency response for the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Lower Mississippi in Memphis, coordinated the use of the chopper with the fireboat crews and said the opportunity to work together with the firefighters is invaluable.

“We use the skills practiced here all the time to save lives,” he said.

A complex exercise that is designed to be as lifelike as possible is the re-enactment of an incident involving a personal watercraft with two riders, and a ski boat with five on board. Both craft veered north to avoid colliding and ran aground. In the exercise, several passengers were thrown ashore, others went into the water and one “died.” Several of the “injured” were children.

Boats from several fire departments responded, and to complicate things, panic-stricken people, including a distraught mother of an injured boy, were yelling at the rescuers to move faster or to help specific victims first. The emergency responders, who had to work with the upset adults while giving aid to those who were injured, evaluated the scene and called for both air and ground evacuation. Neck collars and backboards were used to secure “patients” before the trip to a loading zone to meet with the helicopter and ambulances.

“In staging the training scenarios, the boats are assigned to go to a specific place for a training session by the command center,” Bill Barnes said. “Once they are on their way, they are in communication with a station for that scenario. The crew will go over the problem as they would with a real dispatcher.”

Crew members going through the training session stay in contact with the scenario communications station until they are finished, and any “injured people” are evacuated, Barnes said. Crew members then talk with the command center again and are sent to another training session.

Barnes said a third communication crew monitors actual fire and rescue frequencies. He said that several times in past years, training had to be suspended while crews were sent to help with real emergencies. This year a helicopter crew from LifeNet had to leave the Landing Zone training area. Choppers from Air Evac and LifeNet were on the scene, teaching firefighters how to bring injured people to a landing zone and to assist in loading them into emergency transportation aircraft.

“We have the manpower and the equipment on hand, and are often closer than any other department,” Bill Barnes said.

On the Caddo River, Haskell Fire Chief Brian Cotten said his crew helped make 13 actual rescues on the river during last year’s fireboat-school training.

Water was released from the DeGray Dam to quicken the current in the river to make the training more challenging. Cotten said this made the water faster for people canoeing and tubing the river.

“The release is made before we start training,” he said. “It takes about two hours for the current to build up.”

On Saturday, recent rains had also raised the river by around 3 feet, covering rocks, sandbars and small islands in the Caddo River, the Haskell fire chief said.

On the river, crews in smaller boats practiced picking up a training dummy from the water.

“The boat crew slows the craft, and someone takes the arm of the person,” Cotten said. “When they have them, the boat makes a sharp J-turn. They lower that side of the boat into the water, and that helps get the swimmer into the boat.”

The Haskell Volunteer Fire Department has two 16-foot flat-bottom boats it uses on the Saline River. Cotten said the department works with police in Benton and Traskwood on river operations.

Fire departments from the Tri-Lakes Edition coverage area participating in the Arkansas Fire Boat School included Amity, Bismarck, Caddo Valley, Haskell, Hot Springs, Jessieville, Lake Hamilton and Malvern.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or

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