It’s the time of year when we all start making those wonderful plans for summer. I can’t wait for the BBQs with friends, weekend trips to Long Pool, and lazy weekend days at the lake with nothing but my husband, a good book and a fishing pole to keep me company. The best laid plans can often go awry, though. That’s why I encourage everyone to make sure that safety around the water is a top priority when making your family’s vacation plans. But if things things go really bad on the water, there is a group of community members that can help.
The Pope County Search and Rescue Water Rescue Team began as a Marine Rescue Unit in the mid 60s. Some community members saw a need for a trained team to respond to incidents on Lake Dardanelle and formed the volunteer organization. The team had no public funding at that time, and depended on private donations and equipment to function. Throughout the following years, the team broadened its response to include other area waterways and assisted in land searches when the additional personnel were needed, eventually joining with the Pope County Office of Emergency Services (OES).
Dedicated members of the community donate their time for training, public education and response to emergencies throughout Pope County. Justin Drittler, assistant director for the Pope County Office of Emergency Management has been a member of Pope County Search and Rescue for almost 20 years. He was a member of the Law Enforcement Explorer team in junior high school, and became interested in emergency management after a visit to the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy in Camden. Upon graduating high school, Justin enrolled at Arkansas Tech University and entered the emergency management program. He was hired as the assistant director in 2005.
I asked Justin why he thought having a water rescue team was so important. “Accidents on the water are bound to happen,” said Justin. “Having a trained and well equipped team to respond may be the difference between life and death.”
The team has changed a lot since its lean beginning. Building on what the founding members began, it has grown from five or six original members, one truck and a flat bottom boat to a fleet of four trucks, a Keener boat, a Zodiac boat, a jet ski, a dive boat, a Swift Water Rescue Unit, three all-terrain vehicles, a mobile command center and 25 to 30 members at any given time. Team members hold regular training sessions twice a month and attend several specialty training sessions throughout the year. In 2009, the team and their equipment moved into a larger facility located at the intersection of SR 333 and Highway 64 West in Russellville. The facility includes a large bay area for trucks and other equipment, and a training/conference room.
Water rescue training is crucial to a safe response in any emergency on or near the water. Members are trained to always wear their PFD (Personal Floatation Device, also called a life jacket) when responding to a water incident. I have been a member of this team for 10 years and the first thing I was taught was to never go near the water without my life jacket on. All members are also required to take a swim test every year. We also train to properly operate watercraft, launch and load the boats properly, tow disabled boats and watercraft, rescue people in still and swift water, rescue motorists from flood waters in roadways and recover drowning victims.
I recently had the pleasure of discussing water rescue with Jerry Evans, master scuba diver and captain of the Pope County Water Rescue Team.
Denise Robinson: How did you get started with the Water Rescue team?
Jerry Evans: My father volunteered a lot of his time when I was young so I learned from him the value of giving your time when you had skills and the drive to help others. I was a scuba diver and realized I could utilize those skills with the Pope County team so I joined in 1990.
DR: How many Water Rescue Team members are there?
JE: Right now there are around 20 members on the Water Rescue Team. Many of them are cross trained, meaning they train in different types of water rescue like swift water and diving. We currently have six certified divers other than myself.
DR: As captain of the Water Rescue Team you help train these volunteers to assist and rescue others? What would you say is some of the most important training we participate in?
JE: Of course all training is important, but we train a lot on techniques used to keep ourselves safe in the water. We can’t help someone else if we can’t save ourselves. Learning how to float and how to swim in different water environments is crucial to a successful water rescue. Swift moving water acts differently than still water, and a rescuer must know how to navigate these ever changing water environments. They also must be able to utilize their equipment. We become not only familiar with the different types of equipment we use, but we learn how to use it correctly and efficiently. When we have the right equipment and the right knowledge to use it we have a better chance of having a successful rescue.
DR: What exactly is a successful rescue?
JE: A successful rescue is when everyone comes home safely at the end of the day. We want every call we have to be successful in that the person or persons in trouble and our responders are able to return home at the end of the call.
DR: How many volunteers does a typical water rescue call utilize?
JE: It can vary from three or four people responding to a disabled water craft on the lake to 15 volunteers responding to a drowning. This type of call could include divers, dive tenders, radio operators, boat captains and a large support staff to assist with equipment. This is, of course, in addition to law enforcement and medical personnel also responding to the scene.
DR: I feel that some of the more dangerous calls we respond to are calls involving water rescue. Would you agree?
JE: Absolutely. Depending on the circumstances, someone in the water can have a very limited amount of time to receive help before they go under. Even strong swimmers can get tired very quickly in an emergency situation in the water. That’s why it is so important for us to be familiar with our equipment and train together as a team so that we have a situational awareness that allows us to respond quickly and safely, and render aid.
DR: What are some of the differences you see in the team today when compared to when you joined 25 years ago?
JE: When I first joined the team we often paid for our own gas to respond to calls. We depended solely on donations and sometimes the funds just weren’t available, but that never kept us from responding when someone needed help. We also did most of our maintenance. If something broke we fixed it, often buying repair parts ourselves. Now we have such great support not only from the public and businesses, but also local law enforcement and county government which allows us to purchase equipment and get the education we need to do our job effectively using the latest technologies and training tools.
DR: The summer is quickly approaching, and that means families headed to the local waterways for some fun in the sun. Do you have any safety tips to pass along?
JE: First and foremost, always wear a well fitted life jacket. Never let your child near the water without one on. Be a good example and wear a life jacket yourself. Also, watch the weather. Lightening and water do not mix so never stay in the water during a thunderstorm. Ask yourself: Is the water level too high from recent rains? Are any low lying areas in the surrounding areas flooded? If so, chances are water levels in the creeks are high, meaning swift water conditions that even the strongest swimmers could find trouble in.
The Pope County Search and Rescue Team assists local law enforcement when needed and responds outside Pope County to assist other jurisdictions across the state when our services are requested. In addition to in-house training, we take classes through the National Association for Search and Rescue and train with other agencies to sharpen and hone our skills and learn the latest techniques in water rescue and ground search.
Every year our team attends field days and other functions at area schools for some fun education about water safety. We feel it is vitally important to teach children to be mindful around the water and to know how to correctly wear a life jacket. We teach them about the equipment we use and how they can help their families stay safe near the water. I believe any time we can meet with the public and help to educate them on safety is time well spent.
The Pope County Search and Rescue Team can be reached in an emergency by calling 9-1-1.