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© International Fire Fighter & MDM Publishing Ltd.
From left NOC staff, John Paton, St John Stanley and Tony van den Enden nearing end of 7 miles of paddling in near white-out conditions, Nantahala river.

International Floodfighting Masterclass 2017

Our 2017 Masterclass in flood response and rescue techniques centred on Charlotte Fire Department (CFD) and North Carolina Emergency Management, USA continues from nearly a decade and a half partnership programme of exchange visits of first responders and managers, including volunteers, from the UK, wider Europe, Australia and US. The original visit paved the way to the UK’s vital lifesaving flood response template contained in the Flood Rescue Concept of Operations of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Hundreds of international delegates to date have attended workshops hosted by our colleagues in the US, and acquired the highest value water rescue skillsets and knowledge. Uniquely this special training is recognised by the Institution of Fire Engineers as a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) event of over 52 hours!

Why Masterclasses? Because our world climate change weather sets yearly increasing problems in water and flood rescue, reinforcing the need to share life safety critical knowledge to support response, strategic management and tactics. Challenges for the future come not only from the old foe of weather but budget constraints when forming services of the highest efficiencies. Therefore, up to date operational knowledge and proficiency is vital for community and staff protection. Charlotte FD gets her methods tried and tested in the hurricanes and we take this opportunity to refresh from those lessons and update skills – especially in the riverine North Carolina mountain environment.

After transoceanic flights to Charlotte, North Carolina (NC), USA, on Friday 10th March great welcomes awaited on behalf of host Fire Chief Jon Hannan from Deputy Chief Rich Granger and our sisters and brothers in Charlotte Fire Department (CFD), writes event leader David Lane.

The management cadre immediately set about liaising and orienting for the tasks ahead, an intense programme in techniques and of immersion involvement in development to make the most of the investment in time and budget. The lovely warm weather we’re in is set to roundly deceive us.

First responder flood and water rescue delegates arrive, including ‘SLS Tasmania’ flood response volunteer, Fire and ‘Surf Life Saving GB’ representatives, and shuttled from Douglas International Airport into the first day Saturday, 11 March. A mountain of kit including water rescue PPE of dry suits, helmets, boots, throwlines and gear bags is assembled for delegates at CFD’s ‘Logistics Store’. And we go through the full Risk Assessments for the class and a briefing of the week’s activities post a warm welcome by Command Staff. Our Instructor and support staff, including Captain Drew Lazarus, Engineer Stephen Pritchard, FF II Michael Morley, EM Matt Brown and North Carolina Emergency Manager Eric Wiseman, greet us with great enthusiastic professionalism and camaraderie, setting the tone for the week. At around 19:00 hours, leaders D/Chief Granger and Battalion Chief Tim Rogers head the way for the hotel in Dillsboro, NC a few hours away, with a vehicle fuel check en-route.

Preparations for advanced IRB rescue boat operations at the Bridgewater Training Site, Burke County.

Preparations for advanced IRB rescue boat operations at the Bridgewater Training Site, Burke County.

Bryson City, NC is the destination after early breakfast on Sunday in Dillsboro. To be introduced on arrival by Paul Wolf to the Southwestern Community College. The day is spent in technical presentations, including an ‘Overview of class expectations’, ‘NCEM organization and response’, ‘North Carolina Emergency Management (NCEM) and CFD swiftwater/flood response experiences and lessons’, ‘Flood response training, team development, tactics, strategies and lessons learned’. Lessons learned from ‘Boats and helicopter integration during flood emergencies’, and particularly from ‘North Carolina Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team (NC-HART)’. The latter is about the very successful collaboration rescue scheme between CFD, NCEM and North Carolina National Guard using the UH-60L Black Hawk, a four-bladed, twin-engine, medium-lift utility helicopter (with whom we’ll renew acquaintances later in the week). Adrian Mayhew, SLSGB National Operations Manager, set out the very latest from their ‘Clinical Advisory Group’ on the ‘Drowning & Immersion effects of cold water’. With the life-threatening flood related problems being encountered by Tasmanian communities in severe weather presented by Tony van den Enden, CEO of Surf Life Saving Tasmanian Inc.

We are joined by old comrade Emergency Manager Jeff Cardwell for dinner with our colleagues; slightly jet lagged we turn in to prepare for Monday. Beforehand, we’re warned of severe weather, ice and snow and sub-zero temperatures, that’s ripping over to us in the Carolinian mountains.

A bitterly cold Monday dawns, as we head for the ‘Safety and risk assessment briefing’ prior to the day’s use of the Nantahala River at the base of the dam. To review Hydrology, participate in challenging new and current tactics including Survival swims, Throw-bag rescues, shallow water crossing techniques, contact and towed swim techniques, live bait rescue techniques, eddy hopping/long swims, strainer drills, ‘Tension Diagonal’ and rope operations. After all, these are the reasons for coming here!

Later, in fading light the ‘River search pre-planning’ Exercise is conducted including in-water assessments, in “snow flurried” conditions. A dramatic interruption ensues when what appears to be part of a human skull is found! Armed Federal Agents and Sheriff arrive to investigate at this isolated wilderness location.

In an aura of great seriousness, we return to the exercise and in pitch dark, the “Search And Rescue Operation” is carried out under torch light in the river course. The ‘Initial Planning Point’ being managed by SLSGB’s Adrian Mayhew. West Sussex FRS’s St John Stanley successfully led the difficult search operations in the Nantahala river itself, to find the “missing persons” (dummies). Following a hot debrief we return late to hotel, after a long day rather challenged by events and in the now rapidly falling snow and mercury.

Its Tuesday, after early breakfast, a convoy is led by D/Chief Granger’s Tahoe “command vehicle”, to the Nantahala Outdoor Centre (NOC). Those within are grateful for its warmth in the freezing conditions.

On arrival, an introduction to NOC’s protocols are set out by Master Guide Will Norris and staff. He also gives the day’s layout for the practicals and instruction to be provided by NOC staff in ‘Paddle craft and advanced river rescue skills’. At a pit-stop on river right, in a snow-covered valley, lunch was facilitated by Chief Granger and staff working tirelessly setting up a temporary warm shelter. The delegates arrived having braved the snow and ice conditions whilst using six person rafts for the ‘Paddle Craft/Raft Operations’ during a seven-mile river trip and many exercises. As a testimony to everybody’s outstanding professionalism there was not once a complaint, all enjoyed the day’s learning and freezing!

Delegates “saved” and hoisted during HART rescue evolutions.

Delegates “saved” and hoisted during HART rescue evolutions.

The convoy heads for Bridgewater Training Site in Burke County at 06:00 hours Wednesday. Joined here by another seasoned ‘brother’, Captain Jerry Rodgers. The rescue boat preparatory activity is frenetic getting ready for the dam released waters, courtesy of Duke Energy, to run from 10:00 to 16:00 hours. The safety briefing and analytical risk assessments are presented. The Klaxon wails warning of the torrent releasing challenging and intimidating chilly waters and the IRB handling and operations start. IRB operators are soon undertaking ferrying, hovering, doing J turns, breaking in and out, survivor recovery/pick-ups, boat Squad operations, IRB emergency operations/recovery/towing together with special rescue considerations during boat handling. New tactics are also discussed and demonstrated. An appetite is worked up for a, much appreciated lunch, readied by REACT of Burke County. On completion of evolutions and make up of kit, saw us depart for dinner and the township of Marion.

Early doors again, Thursday, March 16, and we head for Lake James State Park. Through the courtesy of CFD, North Carolina Emergency Management (NCEM) and North Carolina National Guard, it’s that “day of days” with UH 60 Helicopters and HART training operations. NCEM’s ‘Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team’ (HART), is a ‘special operations’ team. Consisting of NC National Guard and NC State Highway Patrol air assets matched with NC Emergency Management and local emergency services personnel to form a mission ready package for helicopter based rescues. HART technician candidates are chosen based on a rigorous physical fitness evaluation and completing stringent prerequisite training. The candidates must pass an intensive 80-hour indoctrination course for team membership. These very successful Teams, in partnership with soldiers from the National Guard, have executed missions involving lost persons, swift water and flood rescues, and high angle wilderness rescues. Here again, many friends join us, including Emergency Manager Greg Atchley, to lead us in the general briefing and a prayer for safe operations before the day’s aircrew safety brief. There are three Black Hawk helicopters at the LZ, however, only two are used for the operations. Helicopter-Aquatic Rescue training operations by the dozens are fulfilled over Lake James, and the delegates are full of gratitude for all concerned who shared their equipment and life-saving knowledge to allow participation in these operations. Obligatory pictures are recorded, and all evolutions declared safely completed. An air of professional satisfaction at a job well done permeates the atmosphere. After saying our farewells and thankyou’s, vehicles are mounted to head for dinner en-route for the highway back to Charlotte City.

From left NOC staff, John Paton, St John Stanley and Tony van den Enden nearing end of 7 miles of paddling in near white-out conditions, Nantahala river.

From left NOC staff, John Paton, St John Stanley and Tony van den Enden nearing end of 7 miles of paddling in near white-out conditions, Nantahala river.

Today is Friday, and its CFD’s Fire Station 38 for a day of fireboat and dive operations. This technical input includes, ‘Wide Area Search Operations (WASO) review’, the ‘CFD dive program’, ‘Dive search operations and technology’. Afterwards for a superb “cookout lunch” by “Big Daddy”; were joined by the “team”, friends and Chief Jon Hannan. We all express our gratitude for Jon’s true southern hospitality and that of the City of Charlotte, for their generosity in all this lifesaving knowledge sharing to benefit our communities. And bid our farewells. Having completed the day’s work, delegates cleaned PPE and repatriated equipment, the final wrap-up ceremony was led by D/Chief Rich Granger. We thankfully recognised Rich for his great leadership during this unique event, then he presented mementos and well-earned ‘CPD’ certificates to delegates.

Thanks also to Burke County Emergency Services and Burke County REACT staff for providing support to our delegates.

We acknowledge and gratefully thank Charlotte City and its Fire Department led by Chief Jon Hannan, North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety and National Guard, without all their support this vital event cannot take place.

Prior to final goodbyes and heading for the return flights, we recognised with thanks Tim Rogers for having given of so much for this week, who in saying goodbye quoted Ecclesiastes 9:10, who to paraphrase, said, (related to flood and water rescue work) “….Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might!”

For more information, go to www.professional-rescue.co.uk

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David Lane. MIFireE, AssocRINA, FRIN – Search And Rescue Academy Director, Fire, Water and Marine Safety Consultant and Film Producer, formerly a UK Senior Fire Officer. The Managing Director (CEO) at ‘Lane, Jefferies & Associates Ltd’ a small specialist fire, water and marine safety consultancy, works internationally in all fire, water and marine related matters including training resource provision.