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Officials: Six Flags river training key to rescue season

Gwinnett County Fire hosted several swiftwater teams from the metro-Atlanta area for training at Six Flags Over Georgia on May 8, 2012.


Staff Photo: Jason Braverman The Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services host a swiftwater river rescue training drill on Six Flags Over Georgia's Thunder River on Tuesday morning. Crews practice using a throw bag along with live bait and rescue during this drill.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman The Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services host a swiftwater river rescue training drill on Six Flags Over Georgia's Thunder River on Tuesday morning. Crews practice using a throw bag along with live bait and rescue during this drill.

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Swiftwater Training at Six Flags Over Georgia

Gwinnett County Fire hosted several swiftwater teams from the metro-Atlanta area for training at Six Flags Over Georgia on May 8, 2012.

Gwinnett County Fire hosted several swiftwater teams from the metro-Atlanta area for training at Six Flags Over Georgia on May 8, 2012.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Swiftwater technicians from Cobb Fire mitigate a simulated river rescue at Six Flags Over Georgia's Thunder River on Tuesday.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Gwinnett County Fire Lt. Chip Vanderveen sits on a bank along the Thunder River at Six Flags Over Georgia and watches the training sessions on Tuesday.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Swiftwater technicians from several jurisdictions, including the Gwinnett County Fire Department, take part in a training session along the Thunder River at Six Flags Over Georgia on Tuesday morning. The venue - and its fast moving water - serves as a close simulation to river rescues.

AUSTELL -- At a closed Six Flags Over Georgia, where the Thunder River barrels into submerged lumber and leaps in a hard-driving wave, rescuers in wet and dry suits intentionally and repeatedly put themselves in jeopardy Tuesday. And they called it a warm up.

As the season of Chattahoochee River rescues hits full stride, members of Gwinnett County Fire Department's swiftwater rescue team partook in a tradition that dates to the late 1990s on a waterway built for controlled thrills. It's a refresher course in heroics, offered at no cost to the department. And it's a close simulation of river rescues, which rank among the most dangerous scenarios firefighters will face.

More than 100 certified swiftwater technicians from across north Georgia will train this week at Six Flags, instructed by officials from Gwinnett and Cobb departments. In Gwinnett, the need for the rescuers' services has climbed in recent years.

"It's a venue here that replicates a lot of what we'd see in fast-moving water," said Lt. Chip Vanderveen, a swiftwater team leader. "This is a good way to warm up for the season."

The training includes three stations, each designed to brush up a specific skill: to dive in and fetch live victims while tethered to shore; to swim in rough water in a manner that ferries the rescuer to safety; and to navigate an obstacle such as a downed tree, which act as strainers and can be next to impossible to escape.

Gwinnett's water rescue team has reported a steady uptick in river visits in recent years, as patronage has climbed. The team responded to the river seven times in 2008, nine in 2009 and 11 times in 2010. They worked two fatalities -- a fisherman and a swimmer -- in that span.

All told, the department responded to 29 rescue and medical emergencies last year -- from heart attacks to capsized watercrafts -- on the river and Lake Lanier. The number of river rescues could not be extrapolated from that data Tuesday.

Five fatalities worked by the team last year included a fisherman, a 9-year-old girl whose tube capsized and a man trapped in a rain-swollen creek.

That rash of incidents has been the impetus for other specialized training this year. For the first time, the Department of Natural Resources, the Army Corps of Engineers and Gwinnett's swiftwater rescue team collaborated on a mock rescue on the river in January.

With no river rescues thus far in 2012, Vanderveen said this year has been relatively slow for his team.

"We had four rescues at this time last year," he said.