Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett County firefighters, from left, Jamie Cote, Matt Braswell, Josh Leblanc, Tyler Chatham fight the current while walking upstream during a swiftwater rescue training exercise at Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell on Wednesday.
Swiftwater Training at Six Flags Over Georgia 2013
Gwinnett County firefighters were among the six agencies who participated in Swiftwater Rescue training at the Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell Wednesday.
AUSTELL -- This weekend, Thunder River will welcome screaming kids (and adults) to float along its watery confines, doing its theme-park best to simulate a treacherous rafting excursion down a roaring body of water.
Monday through Wednesday, it was the Gwinnett County fire department's turn to take advantage of the Six Flags Over Georgia attraction.
Gwinnett County fire's swiftwater rescue team, along with those from five or six other metro Atlanta agencies, descended upon the Austell amusement park this week for training. For the 13th straight year, they used the 300-or-so-yard "river" to undertake extensive practice that will come in handy in life-and-death situations.
"It's a true inter-agency event," Lt. Derrick James, the swiftwater rescue team's training coordinator, said. "This is one of the biggest overall totals we've been able to accommodate in a number of years."
At four different stations Wednesday, crews from several different agencies took to the water wearing wetsuits, life jackets and helmets, practicing everything from the basics (shallow water crossings, rope throws) to more in-depth rescue and boating situations.
Throughout the week, an estimated 115 participants from six different departments re-learned the basics.
"If we don't know the techniques to do these things properly, safely, then we don't need to be doing it or we're going to get somebody hurt," Capt. Ken Wilson said.
Gwinnett's swiftwater team -- made up of, across three shifts and a few fire stations, 33 technicians -- trains routinely in "regular" venues like Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River. Those places, though, are unpredictable and can be truly dangerous.
Thunder River is the best of both aquatic worlds.
"It's controlled, the water flow is controlled. The objects, the hazards are stationary so it provides an element of safety to our training evolutions," James said. "We can get repetitions and practice without increasing the risk to our personnel. Training in similar natural environments, there's an added risk to the teams during the exercises."
The frequency of rescue calls for Gwinnett County's swiftwater team varies from year to year. In 2011, Wilson said they responded to 17 calls on the Chattahoochee River. Last year, they reported to seven calls on the river and eight on the county's relatively small share of Lake Lanier.
Driver-engineer Tim Lister has been with the department's swiftwater team for eight years.
"The coolest thing about coming up here is with the other departments coming, we can all trade notes and get different views on stuff, different techniques," he said. "It's pretty neat."