THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
Safety: Every second counts
By Jackie R. Broach
From May through Labor Day, Midway Fire and Rescue usually responds to 30 to 40 calls of swimmers or boaters in distress.
Officials with the department expect that to be the case again this summer, but they’re hoping to be able to reach many of those victims more quickly than in previous years.
For the last five weeks, Midway has been training on the beach every day, ensuring staff is prepared to handle the influx of water rescue calls. That’s normal for this time of year, but the focus of the training has shifted and that’s what department officials are hoping will make the difference.
Swimming is being emphasized in training this year. In the past, rescue personnel focused more on preparing and using personal watercraft to make rescues.
“Instead of launching the Jet Ski automatically, we want to get more into the swimming part of it,” said Bob Beebe, Midway’s training officer. “If the victim isn’t out past that last breaker, we can get to them quicker swimming.”
Launching a personal watercraft, it takes rescuers about two minutes to reach a victim in the water, whereas a swimmer can reach them in under a minute.
When a victim is caught in a rip current, that can make a big difference, Beebe said.
For victims farther away from the shore, Midway will continue to use the personal watercraft.
“Swimming has been a part of training, but wasn’t something we really concentrated on before now. We’ve got them working to build up their stamina,” Beebe said during a training exercise on North Litchfield Beach last week.
Breaking into two teams, firefighters practiced rescue tactics in the ocean, drawing attention from curious beachgoers.
The firefighters ran down the beach into the water, and swam out about 50 yards. There, one group played the parts of drowning victims, while the other, armed with the orange cans used by lifeguards, acted as rescuers. The task was made more difficult as the “victims” would struggle and try to pull at their rescuers as real drowning victims often do in their desperation to stay above water and make it to safety.
The exercise helps rescuers perfect techniques for approaching and towing in victims, as well as dive techniques to search for submerged victims.
Training normally goes on from around 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Beebe said.
While the scenery may be nicer on the beach than in other training areas, it’s hard work, firefighters agree. But they’re happy to do it.
“We’re all for it, 100 percent,” said Lt. Brent McClellan. “If we’re going to be here, we want to be ready. We’ve got the ocean in front of us and the river behind us, so we’ve got to be ready for anything.”
As a result, McClellan said the department is taking on “new and more things every year.”
With lifeguards stationed at only one of the county’s beaches, Huntington Beach State Park, water rescues have been Midway’s responsibility for 17 years, said Rex Smith, assistant fire chief. To provide better coverage of the beach, Midway started a summer beach patrol two years ago.
Firefighters use all-terrain vehicles to drive up and down the beach, talking with beachgoers, handing out Band-Aids, picking up litter and keeping an eye out for swimmers in distress. They also try to spot trouble before it happens, watching for forming rip currents and warning swimmers when water conditions get dangerous.
Beebe said Midway has already had 10 water rescue calls this summer. There have been no fatalities.
Most of the water rescue calls come from the south end of Pawleys Island, where rock groins create strong rip currents. Rip currents on the south end have caused several drownings in recent years.
Pawleys Island Police Department patrols island beaches, so most of Midway’s patrolling is done in Litchfield.
Midway doesn’t have the personnel to regularly patrol all of the county’s beaches, Smith said.
In addition to everything already on Midway’s plate, Smith said he hopes to create a dive team to handle static water retrievals. That would be useful in situations where cars run off bridges into the water, he said, and would have been helpful in February when a boat sank off Sandy Island, killing three people.
Divers with the Department of Natural Resources had to be called in to find and recover the boat.
A dive team is a long-term goal for Midway, Smith said.
“It’s going to take a lot of development and we’re working on it, but it’s a long way down the line,” he said.
Midway’s beach patrol will be out just about every day and beachgoers are welcome to stop and talk with firefighters or ask questions, Smith said. They carry firehouse trading cards to hand out to kids.