Surf Rescue: What We Learned From This Dive

By: James Webber

So far, it’s a slow Sunday.

The sun is blasting away, the palm trees are swaying in the wind and I can smell the charcoal from the grills up on the beach, those burgers smell damn good.  It’s spring break here is South Florida and the beaches in my zone are packed full of, as Jimmy Buffet sings “tourists covered in oil.”  There’s just one little thing that really nags me about today, it’s the strong East wind of around 20 knots.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking…20 knots, that’s not all that much it’s perfect for kite surfing and boogie boarding.  You’re 100% right in that thought…however, it’s also perfect for one more thing and that thing is rip currents.  The red and yellow flags are up for a reason today hopefully groups of Ray Charles’ are not out swimming today.  Apparently, he also forecasts for NOAA too.  Who would have thought right?

Rip currents occur when water is bunched up onto the beach and has only a few little channels to exit that beach.  At those points, rip currents are formed.  Rip currents look deceptively calm when viewed against the crashing waves just feet away.  To an ill-informed swimmer, they look like the perfect place to swim…and that’s the venus fly trap of the beach.

We Get the Call

The tones blast into the station, Ladder 99 respond to a call of a multiple drowning…now that’s a call that really gets the old sphincter to tighten like nobody’s business.  I immediately call for additional resources because I know from sad past experiences that the usual number is FOUR.  Four?  how do you get 4 people drowning at once?  Well, it’s pretty simple.  It’s the initial victim, a first rescuer, a second rescuer and usually a police officer as well.  The first and second rescuers are definitely good Samaritans, the police officer may have had training, however he usually lacks the equipment and backup to go into the water safely.  They also usually don’t have the natural flotation that a fireman usually has, if you catch my drift.

I know from the location that we’re being dispatched to, that I’ll be on scene first with backup a good 10-12 minutes away.  That’s a VERY LONG time when the ability to breathe is denied.  Luckily, I’ve got a rescue with me and 5 people that I can use.

I’ve got rescue boards, Sterns vests and rescue tubes.

What I don’t have is a team of Michael Phelps like swimmers, I’ve got FNGs.  My resources are severely stretched to the limit due to the shear amount of victims.  I may have to decide who lives and who dies today, that’s not a fun feeling.  I’ve also got my crew who I swore I would make damn well sure that they go home safe every morning.  Today may be the day that promise is broken.  I establish “Beach Command” as we sight the victims and update their location to my other responding units; the victims are FAR out in the ocean.  I bark orders to my crew to get all the gear they need and to bring down the stretcher as well, I also know from experience that somebody, if not most of the victims will be going the hospital…that’s if I’m lucky.  My crew dons their gear and uses the rip current to quickly get to the victims, it’s something I’ve beat into their heads since I took them under my wing.  Three of the victims are given flotation aids, but one victim is missing.  We start a quick search from their LKP (last known position) and luckily grab them pretty quick.  Swimming parallel to the beach to get out of the rip, my crew drags them in one by one.  I hear the other units go arrival at my location and I instruct the other officers to prepare for the cardiac arrest that we’re bringing in.  I also know from experience, that’s not a good ending for that person.  It’s rare we’ll get ROSC (return of spontaneous circulation) back with a call like this and even if we do, the lungs can be filled with seawater and sand (think of your wetsuit if you leave it in the car for a day after use without cleaning it.  Now imagine that in your lungs.  The real sad part, the initial victim is rescued; it’s the second lay person rescuer who is the one who’s being worked on.  The crowd gathers to watch the dog and pony show, I know this a futile attempt.  My priority is my crew; I slip out of the crowd and make sure each one is ok.  Thankfully, I won’t be breaking my promise today, at least not yet, it’s only 1300 and we’ve got until 800 tomorrow and there are a LOT of “tourists covered in oil”.

Sometimes it’s best to do nothing

SO….what I’ve learned, sometimes it’s best to do nothing when you don’t have the knowledge, skills, abilities, and equipment to perform the rescue.  They all had the best of intentions, however the decision they made that day may have sealed the fate of the deceased.  Had we had a single victim, I would have been able to focus all my crew on that one person.  Be careful around water, it doesn’t know, doesn’t care and the ocean will always bag its limit too.  Don’t be the lobster.

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