|A recreational rafter being rescued from the
Spokane River at Barker Bridge, May 31, 2009.
The Spokane River snakes its way through our fire district, starting at the Washington State line and continuing uninterrupted to the border of Spokane. To some it serves as a peaceful backdrop while on the Centennial Trail, to others it is a recreational retreat where they fish, swim and raft. Unfortunately, many fail to respect the power and hidden dangers that the river possesses. They use boats that were designed for swimming pools, don’t wear personal flotation devices (PFD’s) or consume too much alcohol. The end result being they get in trouble and need to be rescued. In 2009 we had a woman get entangled on the supports of the Barker Bridge and she had to be hoisted up through the decking by our technical rescue team, she was not wearing a PFD.
In the past we have only been able to throw rescue ropes out to victims as they passed by or rely on other agencies to perform swift water rescues. As of July 1st 2010, your Spokane Valley Fire Department now has a 21 member Swift Water Rescue (SWR) Team. The process started in January when we received budget approval from the Fire Commissioner’s and then interviewed Department members that had an interest in helping provide this valuable service to the public. We then purchased personal protective equipment, provided training, equipped an existing vehicle with two kayaks, and established guidelines to respond in a safe and timely fashion. The SWR Team members are trained to conduct a search with kayaks, swim out to a victim and make a contact rescue, as well as building rope systems to free water craft from rocks or other debris in the river. They have the ability to accomplish these rescues anytime of the year, regardless of the weather.
Through the process of developing this program, we have taken a regional approach to deliver the service. Responding in conjunction with other agencies allows us to put more responders on scene, increasing the safety level of the rescuers as well as the chance of a successful rescue. Nationwide, statistics show that 30% of the deaths in swift water incidents are rescuers, and working with other experienced agencies will help keep us from becoming part of these statistics. The Spokane City Fire Department has had a SWR team for over 12 years; they have provided us with training support as well as their experience for the startup of our team. We are also working towards an automatic mutual aid response. In addition to the previous mentioned benefits, assisting other agencies gives us more exposure to actual incidents which will increase our effectiveness.
While the Spokane Valley Fire Department now has a team to rescue you, we would really prefer not to! The single biggest thing you can do to be safe on the water is to wear a PFD that is the correct size and insist all of those in your group are doing the same. Please be safe on the water by always wearing a PFD.