Firefighters perform a rescue drill during the Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue’s annual Water Rescue Academy in the Skykomish River on Thursday in Index. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Firefighters perform a rescue drill during the Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue’s annual Water Rescue Academy in the Skykomish River on Thursday in Index. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

As weather warms, firefighters train for rescues on the Skykomish

Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue sees about 20 to 25 water calls per year. Many of those are preventable.

INDEX — Rescue teams in red and bright yellow neon suits waded into a rushing Skykomish River on Thursday in the rain and cold.

In this rescue scenario, one man played victim and floated downstream through whitewater rapids. A second man, playing the role of rescuer, swam out to retrieve him. From the shore, a third and fourth handled a rope securely attached to the rescuer.

It was one of many drills this week during Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue’s annual Water Rescue Academy.

As the weather warms, Snohomish Regional Lt. Jamal Beckham had a few safety tips for the public for river recreation:

“Scout the river and know what you’re getting into,” he said. “Make sure you wear a lifejacket and are prepared for the cold water. You may need to wear a wetsuit or some kind of extra clothing. Water cools you 2o to 30 times faster than the air and you can get hypothermic.”

Dozens of firefighters from five districts participated in the five-day training, which has been held for the past five years.

Water rescue calls have increased for many fire departments, Beckham said. The district responds to about 20 to 25 water calls a year within Snohomish County, he said.

“A lot of departments are starting to build up their water rescue teams,” said Beckham, who is also the water rescue team coordinator. “For a lot of (firefighters), this is their initial training for swift water rescue.”

People need to get rescued for many reasons, he said. Often, they fail to wear a lifejacket or underestimate the swift currents or cold water. Sometimes, rafters or floaters run into trees or other obstructions that pin them down.

Portions of the Skykomish River can be particularly treacherous, if one is not prepared. Some have died.

Since 2018, at least 21 people have accidentally drowned in rivers, lakes and the marine waters of Snohomish County, according to data from the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office. About half of them died in a river.

“We have sections of this river that are nationally renowned Class 5 rapids that are super technical,” Beckham said.

The first two days of the training focused on rescues in lakes. For the remaining three, firefighters got to experience swift water.

“This one’s a little more fun,” firefighter Soren Johnson said with a smile about Thursday’s training in the river’s current.

In the morning, they practiced eddy jumping, swimming from one safe area to another through rapids. In the afternoon, they took a longer swim and practiced rescue techniques.

“You look out and see a river that is raging — it’s intimidating,” Johnson said.

By the end of the training, he hoped to learn how to safely cross the river and complete a rescue.

A rescuer can throw a rope bag to a victim, or swim out to someone floating down the river. Belayers then pull them back to shore.

Beckham said the goal is to use the lowest-risk techniques first.

“Our whole mentality is we’re safe first,” he said. “If we get ourselves into trouble, we can’t help.”

Jacqueline Allison: 425-339-3434; Twitter: @jacq_allison.

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