Water rescue serious business for Coweta fire department

by Wes Mayer


Firefighter Kyle Byrom navigates Marine 1 on the Chattahoochee River during Wednesday’s rescue. 

There is a lot more water in Coweta County than people might think.

There is, of course, the Chattahoochee River, along with Lake Redwine, Lake Raymond and numerous smaller lakes, ponds and reservoirs scattered across the county. For situations where a person on one of these bodies of water is in trouble, Coweta County’s emergency responders need to have the equipment necessary to rescue them.

For that, the Coweta County Fire Department has two swift water rescue vehicles – Marine 1, a donated Yamaha WaveRunner, and Marine 2, a Zodiac inflatable boat. Both of these are stationed at Station 2 on Highway 16 in Sargent because it is the closest station to the boat ramp at the Chattahoochee River. In 15 minutes, firefighters can be on the river searching for someone in need of assistance.

The fire department first launched its swift water rescue program in 2009, said Fire Captain Craig Sherrer. At first, the fire department only had six or eight firefighters who were swift water certified. But now, there are normally 10 to 12 swift water certified firefighters on duty per shift.

To become certified, firefighters must train 16 hours – two eight-hour days – training similarly to lifeguards on the rivers in North Georgia. They have to be able to swim a long distance, retrieve items on the bottom of the river and tread water for a long time period, said firefighter Chad Hardage. Every weekend, the firefighters on duty train on the Chattahoochee with Marine 1 and 2 to get a feel for the river.

2009 was the year when the Chattahoochee flooded to a depth it had not reached since 1919, Hardage said. That year, in September, the river reached 29.8 feet deep, and the flood spurred the department to invest in the swift water rescue vehicles. In 2010, the department purchased the Zodiac, and in 2011, Yamaha donated the WaveRunner. Since 2009, according to Sherrer, the department has rescued at least 10 or 12 people.

“The [Chattahoochee] River might look like there is nothing going on,” Sherrer said. “But when you get out there, you find it’s really moving.”

In the last month, the fire department has rescued five people on the Chattahoochee River. On Wednesday, a man’s boat overturned and he floated down the river to near Bob Brewster Road, where he was able to grab onto a tree. For the rescue, firefighter Kyle Byrom was able to navigate to the man in Marine 1, the WaveRunner, and have the man jump onto a life sled.

Early in April, during the Sweep the Hooch river cleanup event, the fire department was on scene. Using the Zodiac, firefighters Hardage, Chris Barnes and Captain Mark Griffin rescued two pairs of people whose kayaks had overturned in the swift water.

“People underestimate what water will do to them,” Griffin said. “They’ll get in the water and get pinned by it, and they’ll panic and expend all their energy. It looks calm, but it’s not.”

Griffin said one of the things they teach firefighters is that just 6 inches of water traveling at three to four miles per hour will sweep a person completely off their feet. Not only this, but water rapidly removes heat from a person’s body, Sherrer said, especially moving water that does not get a chance to be heated by a person’s body.

For this, the department has four dry suits that keep firefighters from losing body heat if they need to swim out and rescue someone. These suits are equipped with red strobe lights – so the firefighter can be seen in the dark – rescue knives and a special harness for live bait maneuvers, a maneuver where the firefighter is hooked to a rope, swims to rescue the person, then is pulled back to shore with assistance by the rope. The department is hoping to purchase two more dry suits.

For the typical response to a person lost or stuck on the Chattahoochee River, firefighters from Station 8 will respond to the river and attempt to locate the person from the ground. The river also has blue strobe lights marking each half mile on the river. This helps a person lost on the river give rescuers a better idea of where they are so the fire department has a better idea where to find them.

Meanwhile, firefighters at Station 2 will immediately dispatch their rescue team with the swift water vehicle most applicable for the particular rescue. Station 2 is only 15 minutes away from the boat ramp on Highway 16, and the rescue crew will work its way down the river and attempt to locate the person.

For the rescue on Wednesday, firefighters on Bob Brewster Road were able to easily spot the man hanging onto the tree, and firefighter Kyle Byrom launched from the Highway 16 boat ramp and was able to find the man on the Marine 1. The man was transported ashore without injuries on the life sled. The life sled was purchased by Coweta’s fire department from a company on the West Coast. Life sleds are intended to transport surfers to and from big waves.

“Most times the person can’t tell where they are on the river,” Barnes said. “So it makes sense for us to start at the top and work our way down.”

Usually, Station 2 will only dispatch one of the vehicles, Griffin said, and Marine 1 and 2 complement each other for their uses on the river. When the river is high, the Zodiac is preferred. It is better in deeper water because it is not built to navigate the many rocks and other obstacles that appear in shallow water – they could damage the hull or the propeller. When the water is lower, the WaveRunner is much better due to its ability to navigate obstacles.

To tell what the water level is, the firefighters and captains have apps on their phones that let them know the depth of the river and whether that depth is increasing or decreasing. This allows them to know which vehicle to take first. Whichever vehicle they don’t take, rescue crews from headquarters will arrive and transport it to the river just in case it is also needed. The department also has two kayaks for when the water is extremely low.

One thing the fire department does not have is a large motor boat, although they would like to get one, Hardage added. The Carroll County Fire Department has one of these boats, and they are built to navigate very shallow water. They are made out of aluminum and have teflon hulls, allowing the boat to easily skip across rocks on the river. This is useful for when the Chattahoochee gets so low people can walk across it, Griffin said.

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