MISSOULA – When you think of firefighters there’s usually an image of brave men and women pressing their way into a raging inferno extinguishing a blaze and saving people. But in Missoula — and especially this time of the year — the most demanding calls for help have nothing to do with fire, and everything to do with water.
People are told to stay out of the Clark Fork and other area rivers when they’re running this high, and cold. But for the Missoula Fire Department’s Swiftwater Rescue Team this is often when they have to get in the river to save people who’ve gotten too close to the flood waters.
That’s been especially true in recent weeks, as team members have been called repeatedly to help people to safety. That’s ranged from homeless people caught by rising waters needing be escorted back to the shore from vanishing islands to people who have fallen in the water or underestimating the strong currents near the shoreline.
A key tool in many of those rescues, and where Missoula fire is one of the leading agencies in the region, is the use of RWCs, specially-equipped versions of the PWCs, or personal watercraft many people ride for fun.
“An RWC is what we call a Rescue Watercraft. They’re basically two Jet Skis that we have, that we’re allowed to run in the river in the City of Missoula,” said Missoula firefighter Mike Thurlow.
“The nice thing about them is that they’re really quick. They’re nimble. We can get them in small places, shallow water, for rescues. And they have a board on the back that if we do have somebody floating down the water, we’re able to rescue them from the back of the board,” he added.
On the training day that we stopped by, the rescue teams are practicing a variety of scenarios, from rescue swimmers taking off from shore to intercept a “victim”, to using the RWCs to get people to safety. The objective is to recover the victim as quickly as possible and provide first aid on solid ground.
“It’s a good platform to stabilize them on while we get them to shore. We can provide minimal medical care while they’re on the back. But at least we can do something for them until we can get them to shore and to more definitive care,” Thurlow said.
Because these are real world conditions the rescue teams have to use every bit of skill and caution to stay safe during their drills. That’s a challenge this year with the river at record levels.
Thurlow says they respect the river: “We really do. I mean, for the fact we had to dial down our training just because of the river flows, it shows you that we need to respect the water, how powerful it is. And so that’s what we did today. We hope that everybody does the same if they’re out there recreating,” Thurlow said.
The Swiftwater Rescue Team keeps their equipment at a boathouse at McCormick Park. So if you’re in that area and see them responding, please give them as much room as possible to deal with the emergency.
Reporting by Dennis Bragg for MTN News