Olive, Hurley, Phoenicia firefighters ready for water rescues


Firefighters rigging equipment. (photo by Violet Snow)

“The incredible force of unleashed moving water is one of the most awesome factors in our lives. Even those who understand it, view it in awe. Moving water seems to beckon to the human race, come play with me…When the lure of excitement and adventure falls short and disaster occurs, public safety response teams around the world are forced to act.” —  from the website of Team Life Guard Systems in Shokan

The Esopus Creek attracts residents and tourists to swim in her sparkling waters, ride kayaks or giant inner tubes down her rollicking current, and stand hip-deep in the water to cast flies for prized trout. When accidents occur on the creek, members of the fire departments spring into action, using what they’ve learned in monthly swiftwater rescue training.

On a recent Wednesday evening, firefighters from the local water rescue team, drawn from Phoenicia, Olive, and West Hurley departments, gathered at the Woodland Valley bridge near Phoenicia. They practiced rigging a line across the creek, the basis for keeping rescuers safe and offering aid to people stranded in the water.


“On an actual water rescue call, the goal is, nobody gets wet,” said Ted Byron, chief of the Phoenicia Fire Department. “You’re trying to get someone out of the stream. Sometimes you have to get in the water. But the person that’s stuck or dead — there’s a reason for that, and you don’t want to be in the same situation.” Summer practices often involve getting into the creek, since it’s fun, but the water can be dangerous. The Ulster County Sheriff’s Department water rescue team, which joins the local team on many calls, lost a member last year when he drowned during a diving exercise on the Ashokan Reservoir.

Calls for assistance are not frequent, but the Phoenicia/Olive/West Hurley team has been involved in many rescues. This year, they brought a tuber with a broken foot up the bank of the creek. In the past, they have recovered the bodies of the drowned. A man had a heart attack while fly fishing, and the team brought him in. (“At least he passed away doing what he loved,” said Byron.) A swimmer got a foot stuck under a rock in the middle of the creek. A woman who couldn’t swim had made it out to a boulder and was too scared to move. During Hurricane Irene, the team deployed inflatable boats to carry out people stranded in their homes by flooding.

It takes regular practice to learn and maintain the skills required for water rescue. At Woodland Valley, a group headed across the bridge to a gap in the bushes, while others carried bags of ropes, pulleys, and carabiners down to the wide, stony bank. A yellow rope was affixed to a tree, and Phoenicia captain Ernie Longhi, Jr., stood on the shore with a whistle to send signals over the cacophony of water pounding on the rocks. Whistles were accompanied by directional movements of his red-gloved hands.

A member of the team on the far bank raised the shot line gun, a device that shoots a rope instead of bullets. With a loud pop, a yellow ball arced across the water, drawing a thin yellow line after it and landing in the trees along the rocks. Two men grabbed the line and attached it to a white rope. A complex arrangement of ropes, knots, and pulleys resulted in red and white lines spanning the creek, yellow lines anchoring the system to a tree, and an orange rope connected at an angle for attaching an inflatable boat that could be sent out into the water.

This particular practice did not involve a boat but was focused on setting up the mechanical advantage derived from the precise interaction of ropes and pulleys. Other sessions might include sending out a boat to pick up a member who jumps into the water and plays the role of a victim needing rescue. If it’s raining, the team meets at a firehouse to practice tying knots or to go through the bags of gear and make sure everything is in order.

Olive chief Chris Winne reviewed the whistle signals, which enable the teams on both sides of the creek to coordinate as they reel the ropes back and forth into position — one whistle for “stop,” often because a rope is jammed; two quick whistles to move the rope away from home base, three quick whistles to move the rope back towards home. Long whistles apply to the boat line — two to pay it out, three to reel it back in.

The learning process is lengthy, said Byron, and safety is always emphasized. When a group of new members are ready to dig into water rescue, Team Life Guard Systems of Shokan conducts a weekend course to teach the rudiments of hydraulics — the effects of water speed, the action of water around rocks, and principles of coping with swiftly running water. Students learn such skills as reading the water to plan staging locations and handling patients to prevent further injury.

“We have a lot of good guys — and several women — who are really dedicated, do a lot of training, and spend a lot of time doing this stuff,” said Byron. “I love firefighting, but water rescue and ropes are my passion.” The team has about 20 members, and new members are always welcome, including those who prefer to focus on water rescue rather than firefighting. The first step is to join a local fire department, and then attend the trainings on the last Wednesday evening of each month. “We do hands-on training for new people,” said Byron, “and after a while, you can get in the water.”