A 150-person training group consisting of West Virginia Army National Guard soldiers, U.S. Coast Guard personnel and emergency responders from fire and police departments from across the Kanawha Valley took to the chilly Kanawha River in Dunbar on Friday to participate in a water rescue drill.
The drill was based on a disaster scenario involving the mock collision of two large river vessels at the Dunbar Toll Bridge, leaving a number of casualties in the river to rescue.
U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with hoists and rescue divers, fast-recovery boats to mount river rescues, salvage divers and Coast Guard response boats were used during the daylong drill.
About a third of those taking part in the exercise were members of the West Virginia Swift Water Rescue Team, made up of National Guard soldiers and civilian rescue personnel from the Clendenin and Glasgow volunteer fire departments. The drill also involved members of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority and Metro 911 staff, and members of the Charleston, South Charleston, Dunbar and Nitro police and fire departments.
“We want to be prepared with additional support and training if we have another flood event like we had in 2016,” said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, West Virginia’s adjutant general, as the drill got underway with a mid-river helicopter water rescue between 19th and 20th streets.
The death toll from the 2016 floods would have been much higher had there been fewer swift-water rescue teams and trained first responders available at that time, Hoyer said. “Our focus today will be on assisting front-line first responders in dealing with an emergency.”
Since those who take part in water rescues “put themselves in danger every time they respond to an emergency,” Hoyer said, the training helps keep them safer.
“We have to be familiar with the same equipment, from radio systems to snap links” and be on the same page when it comes to following procedures, the adjutant general said.
“Being able to connect faces to names is one of the biggest benefits of this kind of drill,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Thorne, one of 26 members of the Coast Guard’s Barboursville station taking part in the Dunbar drill. “It helps improve communications for the time the next emergency happens.”
Thorne was among the Coast Guard personnel taking part in water rescues at Clendenin during the 2016 floods.
Last year, following training on the Cheat River, the 50-member West Virginia Swift Water Rescue Team was certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a Type I swift-water rescue/flood search and rescue team.
“This training qualifies the team to respond to flood emergencies anywhere in the country,” said Lt. Col. Walter Hatfield, commander of the West Virginia National Guard’s Joint Interagency Training and Education Center.
Half of the West Virginia Swift Water Rescue Team members are National Guard soldiers, while the rest are first responders with training and experience in waterborne search and rescue and swift-water rescue operations. Most of the civilian members of the team are volunteers.