Waterborne paramedics are now a integral part of the Alexandria Fire Department's Marine Operations Team.
"What we've done is add seven paramedics to the team. The concept is to increase our capabilities by putting a high level of medical training into our Marine Operations," said battalion chief and head of Marine Operations, Chet Helms. "There were 27 on the team before. Now there are 34. It includes six captains, three lieutenants and an EMS supervisor."
Marine Operations, originally called the Waterfront Team of the department, began operations in 1997. There are three boats. Two are Zodiacs that are berthed at the fire stations, and the other, known as Boat 200, is tied at the city dock.
"The Zodiacs can be from the fire station to the water in seven to 10 minutes," said Brandon Russell, firefighter assigned to Marine Ops. "Boat 200 can be moving on the water within four minutes of a call. We've added a dock box that contains personal flotation gear and other items so that we are ready to go."
Brian Hricik, EMS supervisor, stressed that the primary purpose of the new paramedics is "to increase medical capability on site. They will also receive some training as firefighters."
This concept to increase the medical expertise was first discussed about six months ago, according to Helms. It is part of the ever-increasing emphasis on water rescue capabilities.
"We don't do patrolling on a daily basis," Russell said. "But, at special events, such as the recent Waterfront Festival, we do patrol throughout the event to maintain a level of readiness."
Hricik emphasized, "We have trauma treatment capabilities. This is particularly important in dealing with heart attack victims where the first five to 10 minutes are critical."
AS PART OF their training, Marine Operations members now go through what is known as Swift Water Rescue. In July they will go to Great Falls to practice the skills necessary to save a life in treacherous water situations.
"It's absolutely essential to practice Swift Water Rescue," Russell insisted. "Every year about three rescuers die nationally under these conditions."
The term “swift water” covers naturally dangerous spots such as Great Falls, as well as flooding conditions. "The training teaches you how to read the water. What spots are dangerous and what ones aren't.
“Also, what to do if you get caught in a life-threatening situation," Russell emphasized.
There is one day of classroom instruction and two days of practical exercises. One of those exercises is termed the "Live Bait Rescue." A rescuer is tethered to a rope and is put into the water to save a potential victim.
"One of the things you learn is that you have to get ahead of the victim to catch them as they come through the currents. It's also essential to be able to spot those places where the water can suck you down," Russell pointed out.
"The more we learn, the more we realize just how dangerous it really is," Hricik said. "The level of training has skyrocketed," Helms added.