When fire season slows and the winter rains roll in, Ben Lomond Fire (BLFD) remains the go-to department for emergencies in the community and throughout Santa Cruz County.
The San Lorenzo River and the multiple creeks in the area can become dangerous during heavy rains, and that’s where the swift water rescue team members from our BLFD – the only department in San Lorenzo Valley with certified swift water technicians – jump into action.
The team – consisting of volunteer firefighters Matt Boynton, Matt Sanders, Hunter Anderson, Scott Bingham, Mark Brown, and Chief Stacie Brownlee – responds to water rescues from the mouth of the San Lorenzo River up to Boulder Creek, as well as to other creek emergencies around the county.
Brown said that through the years, they’ve responded to a variety of water incidents, including kayaks stuck in the river, vehicle accidents, flooding, and recovering the bodies of people who’ve drowned. Chief Brownlee added that most water emergencies are preventable.
“Mostly people get themselves stuck when they think that they can cross the river,” she said. “During the last big storm, we did a lot of body recovery for the sheriff’s department.”
Aside from water being powerful, flood waters can be cold and deceiving; flowing water may appear slow-moving on the surface, but will have swift undercurrents forceful enough to wash away vehicles, roads, and people who attempt to get too close.
Because of these dangerous conditions, the process to become a certified swift water rescue technician can be intense. Volunteer firefighters who want to receive additional training can enroll in department-paid swift water rescue courses. The courses run for several days and include classroom training and hands-on skills practice in rivers that receive rapid snow melts.
Firefighters come away with knowledge and skills needed during swift water rescue situations like using basic equipment, using rope systems, in-water rescues, rescue from whitewater conditions, handling water obstacles, and self-rescue.
Moving water is easily underestimated. It takes all of 6 inches of water to knock a person off their feet, 1 foot of water can cost lives, and a car can be swept away by only 2 feet of moving water.
Once firefighters pass the courses and become swift-water certified, they need to attend annual training to keep their skills updated. Though BLFD is the only team in the area, Brownlee said other agencies are looking to participate.
“I know that park rangers and the sheriff’s department are starting to send members through swift water classes,” she said.
It Takes a Team
Mark Brown has been a part of the swift water team since it began in 1993, and helped develop procedures and policy for the team. He said that the team uses a variety of equipment in water rescue and recovery operations, including ropes, pulleys, floatation devices, drysuits, and more.
“Preferably, we start with throwable rope bags to assist the victims in their own self rescue,” Brown said. “Our team has drysuits to enter the water and we use a variety of rope rescue gear to accomplish rescue if needed.”
He added that the fire district has a rescue boat available if needed, and it is a valuable asset when rainfall pushes water levels beyond the banks.
“We used the boat to patrol streets in the floods two years ago,” he said. “We were able to transport victims who were stranded in their homes during the floods.”
The goal, of course, is to safely bring to shore anyone who is in the water – including our rescue volunteers. Even though they’re trained specifically for it, Brown said that putting swift water rescue team members in water is the last option, and that even firefighters without the additional training will assist where they can.
“Water emergencies require a variety of skills and many fire personnel, who are not trained for the water, will assist in shoreline operations,” Brown said. “The goal of our team is to not go into the water whenever possible.”