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Annual Fire Boat School fosters preparedness, common bond

by Morgan Acuff | July 19, 2015 at 12:00 a.m.
A rescuer hangs from the Coast Guard helicopter as he reaches out for the "victim" that sits atop a rooftop during the 12th annual Arkansas Fire Boat School.

— Choppy waves of air-stirred mist rose in circles from DeGray Lake’s surface as a rope was lowered from a helicopter to people on floating rooftops. A member of the rescue team held on to the rope with an arm outstretched to one of the people waiting atop the scattered roofs.

Of course, the roofs were not real in this scene, a scenario planned by a volunteer committee composed of experts in emergency training and response from across Arkansas. Such scenarios were the norm for the Arkansas Fire Boat School, in its 12th year, which tested fire and emergency crews from all over Arkansas on May 29 and 30 with training that is free to all first-responder agencies that possess a fire boat.

Crews from other states are welcome to attend the training, and Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma crews are regular participants, although this year, a Mississippi crew was the only out-of-state guest. Floods in Texas and Oklahoma kept those states’ available crews locked into all-too-real operations.

Boats made available through the Department of Defense’s Federal Excess Property Program play a big role in the school. The boats are purchased privately through the program, which the Arkansas Forestry Commission facilitates. Crews in the state can find forms for such purchases at

The crews are instructed in incident-command protocol, team-building skills and communication skills. The volunteers, participants and state emergency agencies involved also use the experience as a means of forging and building relationships with one another. Arkansas Fire Boat School Chairman Bill Barnes said he believes this is one of the greatest strengths of the school, which he started.

“We want all our boats and all our crews to know each other, and we want them to know the [Arkansas] Game and Fish [Commission] law enforcement officers,” Barnes said, “because those are the guys and girls that are going to be out on the water first in an emergency.”

Weather in the region prior to the event, as it has in the past, made preparations difficult. The Caddo Valley crew dropped ladders into the swollen Caddo River that pours into DeGray Lake to set up the serpentine course where crews must weave between markers made of PVC pipe and suspended from cables that hover over the swift river.

Adriane Barnes, the Arkansas Forestry Commission’s public information officer, said most of the incident-command center was blown away the night of May 29, prompting organizers to come to the incident-command area to rebuild at 5:30 the next morning.

“It was challenging, but not horrible,” Adriane Barnes said.

She noted that turnout was affected by the weather as well.

“Most of the crews that signed up are here,” she said. “They just brought like half of their crew. So we ended up with 33 boats instead of 40 because a lot of crews were gonna bring two and three boats, but they didn’t.”

Fifteen large boats and 18 small boats were manned by participants.

A man was actually reported missing, last seen on the lake, as the crews were finishing dinner at the Clark County Training Center. The participants immediately began search-and-rescue procedures. After the storm died down, the man who was missing was found coming ashore — he had been lying low along the lake’s edge until the storm passed.

“We got a call that there was a gentleman lost on DeGray Lake,” Bill Barnes said. “So, Game and Fish sent a boat, and the local fire department, Bismarck, launched their boat. As luck would have it, he came in about the time they were getting ready to go out. He had hunkered down while the storm came through.”

Crews enacted a battery of scenarios over the two-day course, including large-boat and small-boat rescues. Most of the small-boat scenarios took place on the Caddo River. The urban slackwater scene included floating rooftops and road signs to simulate a submerged area of a city. Volunteers used the rooftops to climb onto for high ground as they awaited rescue teams. A group of judges graded efforts and made evaluations as they watched volunteers call out for help and while the crews practiced their responses.

Crews tested their responses in medical and fire emergencies at the scenario of a simulated private watercraft, boat and gas-pump explosion that left a gas pump on fire on a dock. Volunteers were given fake wounds and instructed to act injured. Screams for help and emergency personnel organizing care for the wounded could be heard from several hundred feet away.

“One group of boats pulled up, and we had a gas pump on fire, a boat on fire and a whole bunch of injured people, one with a severed leg,” Bill Barnes said. “We had two boats with firefighting capability and one boat that was primarily medical — just happened to be that way. But they focused on the injuries and never put the fire out at the gas pump or the boat. So afterward, there was a long discussion about that; there has to be an overall awareness of the situation.”

A wildland-island-fire scenario gave fire crews experience in traveling to and putting out fires in isolated areas of the lake. All large-boat scenarios were held on DeGray Lake and featured flyovers and participation from LifeNet and Air Evac helicopters and crews.

Small-boat scenarios on the Caddo River included a victim in a tree, a victim in the water and a victim behind a bridge column. Small boats also participated in wildland-island-fire and urban-slackwater scenarios, as well as the explosion scenario on DeGray Lake.

An incident-command center was set up to allow the crews to learn how radio communication would function in an emergency, dispatching and sorting information to crews on the water and in the air.

A crew was chosen from both large- and small-boat categories to receive the Best All Around Large Boat Crew and the Best Overall Small Boat Crew awards from official graders from the AGFC and the Arkansas Fire Academy, among other organizations. Scores were based on each crew’s teamwork, attitude, communication skills and emergency protocol skills.

The Houston Volunteer Fire Department from Perry County won Best All Around Small Boat, and the Van Buren County Rescue Squad won Best All Around Large Boat. The grading sheets are mailed to all crews who participate to help them improve their procedures and training criteria.

“They’re not taking the two or three days off to get any accolades,” Bill Barnes said. “And they’re sure not paid a penny. They get out there, and they sweat. They get hot; they stub their toes and cut their hands. It’s because when they get back to their area, whether it’s on a river or on a lake, they want to do a better job of being there for their people. It’s about their people.”

The organizers of the event did not originally grade participants — the operation started small, without any boats at the first fire boat school 12 years ago. But as time progressed, the crews began requesting recognition. Those who take part in the event volunteer their time, although sponsors offer supplies, and the Arkansas Forestry Commission has about 30 employees who volunteer at the school. Bill Barnes said he thinks the school exemplifies the volunteer spirit of Arkansas.

“You just have that volunteer spirit throughout,” he said. “The Arkansas Department of Health came to us and said, ‘You guys ought to have a first-aid station out there.’ It wasn’t because somebody in Little Rock said there needs to be a first aid station. It was because the local nurses said, ‘We need to be there when there are this many people operating boats out on the lake at the same time.’”

Small crews from rural fire departments, city fire departments and state agencies all employ teamwork and develop relationships through the school. This is another way that the school benefits the general public, Bill Barnes said. He said that when rescue personnel are at odds, it puts the people they are trying to save at risk. For that reason, infighting is not allowed at the school. He said he believes that rule helps crews jell at the school and out in the field, adding that crews do not have the same equipment, training or funding from department to department.

Bill Barnes said he believes most people don’t think about the emergency personnel until something catastrophic happens. With major floods in neighboring states this spring and high water on the Arkansas River that is still fast-flowing, residents are thinking about these men and women more often.

See more photos in our Arkansas Fire Boat School gallery.


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