Helicopter, kayaks and dogs get key NH Swift River training
Nighttime drill was part of Swiftwater Rescue Technician Advanced course for Conway Fire and Rescue members
By Paul Montgomery
The Union Leader
CONWAY, N.H. — A New Hampshire National Guard Black Hawk helicopter swept a narrow-focused, very bright searchlight up and down the Swift River on Friday night as personnel from multiple agencies looked for an unknown number of victims from a tubing mishap.
It was a training scenario, but it played out like a real emergency.
A group of young people had been enjoying the popular warm-weather activity on the Swift above Lower Falls, when the water became turbulent from a sudden summer rain storm upstream. Many of the tubers spilled over the falls. The search area extended down river to the Albany Covered Bridge and included the shorelines.
It was a 17-year-old tuber who was able to get out of the water and go for help shortly after 6 p.m. Before long, a command center was set up in the Lower Falls parking lot, and local kayakers were putting in above and below the falls, after being briefed by Ben Selleck, swiftriver training coordinator for the state Fire Academy and Dave Hughes of the Center Harbor Fire Department, safety director for the drill.
No one was hurt in the incident Sept. 21 because, except for two "victims" who left their scent on the shore for a K9 unit to follow, the victims were mannequins.
The scenario that played out brought out local emergency personnel, including members of Conway Fire and Rescue, the kayakers of White Mountain Swift Water Rescue, state Fish and Game, the Forest Service, and Canine Alert Search Team of Peterborough. Emergency responders from the Bedford Fire Department were also on the Black Hawk.
The nighttime drill was part of the Swiftwater Rescue Technician Advanced course for a dozen Conway Fire and Rescue members, though the nighttime search and rescue was a learning experience for everybody. It was the first time kayakers had been used in an official capacity by the Conway department.
It wasn't the first time Conway Fire and Rescue has been called to the Lower Falls, and on good days the emergency is limited to a swimmer's banged knee. On bad days, what starts out as a search and rescue for a visitor turns into a recovery mission. Then, Fish and Game takes over.
The White Mountain National Forest Service is working on a design for a viewing platform, which would run along the Kancamagus side of the river and allow visitors to get their photographs from a safe vantage point.
Don Uhler and Shawn Emerson, of Adirondack North Rescue Solutions in Saranac, N.Y., were instructors for the training technical swiftwater course, the first day of which was a classroom session.
In the course, participants use rope and highline systems, manage raising systems for victims, use advanced concepts for river searches, and perform rescues at night or in low visibility. The successful completion of the course qualifies students to operate on a swift water/flood search rescue team.
On Friday night shortly before 8:30 p.m., the Black Hawk hovered over the parking lot at the Albany Covered Bridge, airlifting the last accident victim of the tubing mishap. The victim, Conway Fire Chief Steve Solomon said, had severe injuries and was unresponsive when he or she was found shortly after 8 p.m. The others in the group were luckier. Two were found by the K9 team onshore. Five were rescued from the water, and one had self-rescued and found his way back to the highway.
All the rescues were successful. Solomon said the idea to create a local kayak team came when kayakers volunteered during a search, but Conway Rescue was unable to use them due to safety and liability issues.
"We need this level of training just for ourselves. We're doing this because we're doing some of this kind of rescue already," Solomon said. The multi-agency approach was very helpful, though. "That's the first time we had them all together," he said. "We're trying to build state assets on this." The idea is to use the team on a regional, or even statewide, level.
On Saturday, students set up a high line across the Swift River, anchored on the right side above the cliffs at the Big Eddy, and practiced dropping down and inverting while hung from the ropes, then harnessing and hauling up an accident victim. They also used an inflatable raft, secured by a low line across the river, to retrieve victims downriver.
On Sunday, according to Solomon, participants swam in the Saco River at the Powerline Rapids, purposely flipped the raft so as to practice righting it, and powered up the rapids in a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB).
The training was made possible by a Homeland Security grant administered by the Fire Academy. Twelve Conway firefighters took part, along with several firefighters from other communities, a member of the kayak group, and a Fire Academy employee.
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