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Safety first on Yuba

If there is one thing the current staff members at the Washington Fire Department would say they have improved since a major department re-organization last year, it is their focus on training.

“We have been training once a week just like every other volunteer department,” Interim Fire Chief Mike Stewart said, while his eight-member volunteer crew practiced river rescue skills Wednesday at the South Yuba River near the small town.

When the Washington County Water Board – which runs the fire department – fired then-chief Mervin Lee last summer, one of its major concerns was that too little attention was paid to training. While the town is still divided on who was right, most residents don’t argue that firefighters are more ready to handle emergencies. Five of the eight-member crew are now EMT certified. Before the reorganization, only one was certified.



“I joined the department (when Lee was chief) to help the community,” firefighter Dina Svenson said. “That is what I continue to do. We are moving forward and getting a lot of help. We are getting a lot of equipment that we desperately needed.”

At Wednesday’s river rescue training, Stewart said that one of the most common dangers in the South Yuba River is when people try to stand in the current and get their feet wedged between rocks.




“If you get swept away, keep your feet up to not get them trapped,” he said. “You can drown in a foot of water if you are trapped.”

The fire chief also suggested that people swim rather than walk out into the river, bring plenty of fluids – but not alcohol or drugs – and stay out of the water until July, when the water is warm.

“You can’t pull out your cell phone and call 911 – it won’t work here,” Stewart said.

Even on a warm day, such as Wednesday, all of the firefighters wore wet suits while they were in the water. A few of the problems they had to deal with were a fast current, a water level that changed quickly from shallow to deep, and many jagged rocks.

“In the spring it gets nice, but the water stays fast,” firefighter Lori Kolstad said. “It’s faster than people think it is. It is very dangerous.”

Stewart said there are four levels of training to save people from drowning, and several questions have to be asked to determine which method is safest for them:

• Reach: Can the victim be pulled out without anyone else having to go into the water?

• Throw: Can a rope be thrown out to the person so he or she could be pulled in?

• Row: Can the victim be saved by taking a boat out to them?

• Go and tow: Can someone swim out to the victim and rescue him or her?

• Helo: If nothing else works, should a helicopter be taken to the victim?

The last one is the most dangerous, Stewart said.

Wednesday, the Washington firefighters trained on the first two methods: reach and throw. They used ropes to stabilize a “victim” who was pretending to be stuck in the water and to pull him out.

“I want the skills to complete successful rescues,” Kolstad said. “When we get a call, we want to get it done right.”


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