The 12 firefighters on the team are certified to search underwater for missing adults and children.
Every year, crews in the district are called to drowning scenes, said firefighter and rescue swimmer Brendan Grace.
Under state and federal safety rules, most firefighters and police officers aren’t allowed to enter water without special training. At least three fire departments in the county say they’ve been adding the training in recent years to combat drowning deaths.
The crews at Fire District 7, based in Clearview, wanted to be able to save more people, Grace said. The team underwent four days of training. The swimmers were tested on physical strength, handling high-stress situations underwater and holding their breath for long periods.
“It’s going to help,” Grace said. “It’s going to save somebody.”
At least 10 people drowned in Snohomish County in 2013, including children and teens.
Fire District 7 stretches from Mill Creek east to the Snohomish River and south to the Snohomish-King county line. Crews there are called to water rescues involving fishing accidents, local swimming holes and flooding.
The idea for the rescue swimmer training sprang from discussions around the county about the drownings, Grace said.
“We know these happen. We know they’re going to happen,” he said. “They happen every year, so what can we do about that? What can we do to help people when they’re in trouble?”
Last summer, Clearview firefighters approached Fire Chief Gary Meek and Assistant Fire Chief Eric Andrews, who also serves as fire chief in Gold Bar. They asked for permission to start the team.
At least two police agencies in the county have dive teams — the Everett Police Department and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office — but firefighters often are the first on scene, Grace said.
The Monroe and Gold Bar fire districts also have trained rescue swimmers.
Eventually, they’d like to get a system in place where the trained swimmers could be paged directly to a drowning scene any time and anywhere in the county, Andrews said.
“Some of them could be there in 10 or 15 minutes,” he said. “In a cold water drowning, that can make a difference.”
The Fire District 7 team already has been deployed once, to a scene where a car veered off the road into a retention pond. The team got in the water and made sure no one was trapped in the car, Grace said.
The team will be able to search for victims who have been missing for less than a hour, said district spokeswoman Autumn Waite. After an hour, water rescues usually become body recoveries.
To prove their mettle, the team members had to swim a mile, hold their breath for a full minute and practice dealing with near-drowning victims, who can be combative with rescuers, Waite said.
So far, the Fire District 7 rescue swimmers are allowed to enter still water and slow-moving water. Swiftwater rescues and icy-water rescues require additional training.
The team is scheduled to complete the ice rescue training in February. They also plan to add swiftwater capabilities — including river rescues — later this year.
In Gold Bar, the rescue swimmers trained for swiftwater operations first, because the Skykomish River is the scene of many of their calls, Andrews said.
Monroe created its team of eight rescue swimmers about two years ago, said battalion chief Erik Liddiatt. They’re ready for boat operations and swiftwater rescues, and they’re adding ice rescue capabilities soon.
Right after the Monroe team got started, the swimmers were called to a drowning on Lake Tye. A rescue swimmer found a missing child under the water and pulled him out within five minutes of the first 911 call, Liddiatt said. The child didn’t make it, but the swimmers always carry their gear with them in case another call comes in, he said.
They’re trained for rescues at water depths of more than 20 feet, Liddiatt said.
“It’s the elite swimmers in the fire service,” Liddiatt said.
The Fire District 7 team includes Grace, Matt Abers, Matt Ball, Brett Bergeron, Mike Crockett, Kirk Dunham, Todd Epler, Brandon Gardner, Dave Hanson, Jeremy Karapostoles, Neil Merritt and Vince Read.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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