CASTORLAND — A grandfather leaves his 6-year-old granddaughter outside playing when he goes inside to answer a ringing phone. When he goes back out, she is gone. After looking everywhere he can and calling for her, he calls 911. He lives next to the Beaver River and he fears the worst has happened.
This is the scenario laid out by the head of the Lewis County Sheriff’s Dive Team and lead training officer, Patrick Morse, to the 15 men and women gathered on Wednesday evening during the twice-yearly water rescue drill.
In addition to the voluntary six-member dive team, the Sheriff’s Marine Unit and the Croghan Fire Department’s Cold Water Rescue Team also took part in the exercise.
Mr. Morse said he played the role of incident commander, arriving first on the “scene” at the “grandfather’s” house, which was a short distance downriver from the boat launch at the home of a man who had agreed to allow the teams to use his property in their training.
He spoke to the “grandfather,” evaluated the scene and called for the boats to go to the boat launch to enter the water safely.
Remaining as true as they can to the steps they would take in the case of an actual emergency during the drill is important to ensure the teams are prepared, Mr. Morse said.
Following an operations checklist Mr. Morse went over with the participants before the exercise began, the boats were instructed to start up river searching for the girl in case she was holding onto tree limbs.
Meanwhile, some divers and the cold water team searched the shoreline while other divers went underwater to ensure the girl wasn’t stuck to tree limbs or other debris.
When the boats reported she hadn’t been seen, they were positioned beside the divers to prevent potential boaters that might be on the water from going over the divers.
After the drill had been going on for over an hour and a half, the teams had all done their sweeps and received the call: the “girl” had been found playing behind the church.
With all of the teams back to the boat launch, Mr. Morse did a re-cap and the heads of the diving and cold water teams gave feedback to the group about the areas in need of improvement and the participants had their chance to share what they had learned and ask questions.
“If we didn’t learn something then I didn’t make the drill hard enough,” Mr. Morse said.
The biggest challenge of the exercise, according to Mr. Morse, involved communication issues that led to confusion about boat and manpower logistics throughout the search.
In a real situation, there would be a lot more people and everyone involved would have radios.
The exercise also acted as a test run for the Sheriff’s Department backup boat, Mr. Morse said. With a small modifications like a heavier anchor and a safety shield for the propeller, it was determined the boat would work well for rescues.
Dive team member Rob Gates said that for him, the number of “strainers,” or branches and debris floating a few feet under the water’s surface, was a surprise and presented some challenges.
He also said the bottom of the river, about 21 feet at the deepest point according to Mr. Morse, had many branches and dead trees. With visibility limited to a few feet, Mr. Gates said finding the girl would have been very difficult if she had been caught in some of them.
Mr. Morse said he has been leading training sessions since 2001 and does additional training throughout the year with the dive team. With each voluntary member providing their own equipment, he estimated the cost of the team to be less than $1,000 every year.
“If nothing else, this is a refresher,” Mr. Morse said.
The teams haven’t had to do a full search and recovery since 2010, when a snowmobiler went off a railroad trestle and into the Whetstone Gulf flow. He was found deceased in about 7 feet of water in the town of Martinsburg.