Gant Exclusive: Fire companies learn to deal with another element

CLEARFIELD – A partnership of area fire companies took the first step to establishing a water rescue team this weekend with class work and practice in the chilly waters of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Clearfield.

“It’s best to train in the conditions you’ll be working in and we couldn’t ask for a better day,” said instructor Mike Beckwith of Tyrone, referring to the steady rain and wind on Sunday afternoon. “With this weather, this is real reality-based rescue.”

Members of the Clearfield Fire Department, LawrenceTownship’s three fire companies and Curwensville Rescue, Hose and Ladder Co. spent two days learning the basics of surface water rescue and recovery, according to Clearfield Fire Department Assistant Chief Brett Owens.

“The first thing we learned was self rescue — we don’t want the rescuer to be the second victim — then how to rescue someone from shore without getting wet. Then we hit the water and worked with lines, buoys, snag lines and learned hand signals. It was a good class and taught us a lot about what we don’t know and what we need. A lot of people had their eyes opened,” Owens said.

Topping the list of what’s needed are proper gear, including wetsuits, drysuits, helmets and personal flotation devices. Class members wore street clothes into the river and quickly found them a hindrance.

“I’m a strong swimmer but in regular clothes, it’s very difficult. It tires you out,” Owens said.

Added instructor Dave Lynch, also of Tyrone, “Most of them were wearing cotton, which wicks away body heat and makes hypothermia a real possibility. They have to get the proper equipment to make this work.”

The next phases of the training involve boats and running rescue lines from them; eventually a underwater rescue and a recovery dive team may be part of the effort. Clearfield owns three boats, RH&L also has watercraft, but ropes and other items are on the shopping list.

“We’d like to form a team — it would be the only one in Clearfield County. Curwensville has already had this phase of the course so now we can build on that and move on to the next phases. But we need to navigate the legal issues since several municipalities are involved,” Owens noted.

But with so many water dangers in the county in addition to the river — Curwensville Lake, Parker Dam, Clearfield Creek, Shagger’s Inn, Brown’s Ponds — the fire officers agree the team is a must.

“Even the small creeks and streams running through our county pose a danger, especially during flood conditions. This is a major exposure for us and one we need to address. We have to do this,” Owens added.

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