The Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award, presented by the Fire Engineering Courage and Valor Foundation, commemorates the life and career achievements of Deputy Chief Ray Downey, chief of rescue operations and 39-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). Meet this year’s nominees for the award, which is presented annually at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Firefighter II/EMT Anthony Helms, Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services, Acworth, Georgia. He is an 11-year veteran of the fire service.
Comment: “This event has been described as a 100-year flood event, and the circumstances these rescuers encountered cannot be duplicated in a controlled training situation.” Timothy Hinkle, firefighter/swift water rescue instructor.
Truck 14 performed the following rescues on the night of September 20 and the morning of September 21, 2009. Its crew consisted of Captain John Redwine, Engineer Jeremy DeJames, Firefighter Russell Brown, Firefighter Anthony Helms, and Firefighter Patrick Rhinehart.
The crew arrived at a residence on Moon Road off Macland Road at about 12:30 a.m. Engine 23 was already at the location. A female on-scene had gone out to her horse barn to check on her animals. The water level and current increased to such a point that she was unable to return to shore. The rapid deployment craft (RDC) appeared to be the easiest way to retrieve her. She was in no immediate danger at the time, because the barn was on a small rise and the water levels were about three to four feet. If the rain continued, however, there was a strong possibility that she could be in a difficult situation. The animals were sheltered in place, and Brown and Helms brought the female to shore.
Truck 14 was then directed to go to Station 23 and stage because of the high volume of rain still falling. After reaching Station 23, Truck 14 was soon sent to Paulding County to assist Squad 4. Information received stated that the squad was cut off by flood waters and unable to get to shore. Three Cobb Fire personnel and two victims were stranded on a small grove of trees, and the rising water levels and speed of the current prevented them from returning to shore.
Truck 14 was unable to go west from Powder Springs because of the roadway’s flooding. Turning north, they proceeded to Macland Road and then went west on Macland and 120.
On the way to assist, Truck 14 was redirected to Laird Road in Paulding County. It was reported that a female was on top of a car and in imminent danger. When the truck arrived, that is exactly what they found. After a brief meeting with Paulding Fire, they were directed to the victim’s location. Rescue equipment, including the RDC, rope, and extra personal flotation devices (PFDs) were carried to a point where the victim was visible. To reach this point, they had to cross a small channel about 30 feet wide. The forded the channel uneventfully. The high spot on which they were standing was actually the bridge that spanned the creek that was flooding. A female was on the other side of the bridge in the flood water approximately 100 yards away. The car on which she was sitting was not visible, and the water was reaching the middle of her torso. She was in an extreme panic state and was screaming continually. Redwine assigned DeJames and Helms to perform the rescue while he, Brown, and Rhinehart provided shore support.
First, they attempted to wade out with the RDC. The water was much too swift, and the roadway provided no foothold. It became increasingly slick from sediment deposits. The RDC came close to being caught by the current and swept away. Their next attempt involved a three-person wedge using Brown, DeJames, and Helms. Again, the current was too swift, and the depth of the water between the victim and the shore was well above the flotation point of their PFDs.
They then attempted to use a tag line on the upstream trees next to the road. Redwine was able to anchor the rope on a tree fairly close to the bridge. When he attempted to get to another tree to continue anchoring the line, the current pushed him back. The rescuers then decided to use the RDC to go upstream above the victim and make their way across the current using the eddies behind the trees. Brown, Rhinehart, and Redwine took the RDC out as far as they could without being overcome by the current. Helms and DeJames then boarded the RDC as the support team launched them into the wood line. The crew was able to move though the trees as planned. While they were making their way to the victim, the remainder of the team alternated standing at the end of the tag line to try and provide some safety and shine light on the victim so that the RDC crew could see the individual. The RDC crew was quickly beyond the reach of a throw bag; and because of the tree line on the downstream side of the road, retrieval of any line would have been difficult at best. On reaching a point directly upstream of the victim, the RDC crew used a rope they had brought with them to lower themselves downstream to the victim.
They tied one end of the rope to the bow rigging of the RDC and wrapped a single bight of rope around a tree. While allowing the rope to pay out of the rope bag, they lowered themselves down to the victim. The crew then advised the victim not to jump on the boat when they got near, since it would tip the boat, and they would all be in trouble. DeJames positioned the boat near the victim, and Helms grabbed the victim and pulled her onto the RDC. They then used the rope system to pull themselves back up the current and into the tree line. The procedure was then reversed after giving the victim a PFD, and they made its way back to the departure point. The rest of the crew pulled the boat to the bridge. The entire team formed a wedge, crossed the remaining channel, and brought the victim back to shore.
At this point, all loose gear was stowed in the bucket of Truck 14, and the RDC was lashed to the aerial to get to Squad 4’s location quickly. A Paulding County chief informed Redwine that the crew was being redirected to another victim in dire circumstances. Redwine informed the chief that they were going to Squad 4’s location unless otherwise directed by Car 101 (Battalion Chief Steve Tatum). Truck 14 was given the go-ahead to check the next victim after contacting 101 over the radio. 101 emphasized that Squad 4 was still in the water and had been so for some time.
Truck 14 made its way to Highway 92 in Hiram. They were directed to a residence that sits to the east of the highway. Paulding County was on the scene and told them that a 65-year-old man was in a trailer behind the main residence that was cut off by the flood. Water was just beginning to enter the trailer. They made their way down a hill to the residence and waded through knee-deep water until they located the trailer in question. Although unable to make physical contact with the victim, they were able to speak with him across the flooded channel. The trailer, while in swift flood waters, was also pinned in place by thick trees. Redwine decided to have the victim shelter in place for the time being, since he appeared to be in no immediate danger.
Truck 14 then made its way to Squad 4’s location on Waters Road. Squad 4 had plenty of support from the numerous Paulding County fire and police officials on-scene. Squad 4 had three personnel in the water with two victims. Lieutenant Paul Prater and Firefighter Brad Nash were in a clump of trees; Firefighter Todd Sanders was on the RDC with two victims. Truck 14 assisted Paulding County and Engineer John Ferro as shore support. Squad 4 was already acting on a plan; Truck 14 simply provided personnel with tag lines to move the RDC across the channel and back to shore.
While Squad 4 was gathering its equipment, Truck 14 received word of a call that had been holding in south Cobb County. All loose gear was then stowed on the truck, and it responded to Brown Road off of Stout Parkway. Their first challenge was getting these. They estimate that they drove emergency somewhere in the range of 50 miles through driving rain. During this time, they were in communication with Engine 22, who was on-scene at Brown Road giving updates. It was clear from their communications that this was an urgent situation.
On arriving on-scene, personnel from Engine 6 pointed out the victim’s location. Again, they could hear the victim over the noise of the water, screaming for help. The victim had reportedly been in the water for more than four hours. The area upstream of the victim was open because of recent clear cutting, giving them no trees to work with. The water was estimated to be at least 200 yards wide. The other shore was not visible because of the width and the lack of light. The original plan was to put the RDC in the water well above the victim, float downstream, and use the eddy behind the tree the victim was holding onto.
DeJames and Helms launched the RDC, and Brown was designated as the upstream spotter. A firefighter from Engine 6 relieved Brown shortly thereafter. He and Rhinehart were sent downstream to act as downstream safeties. Car 101 arrived on-scene about this time and stayed on the roadway near Redwine to have a good vantage point. Redwine kept a light on the victim so the RDC crew could easily locate her and try to communicate with the victim and boat crew.
The plan went well until the RDC reached the actual roadbed of Brown Road. There was a slight standing wave on the downstream side of the road, and the water narrowed and increased velocity at the victim’s location. As the RDC crew approached the victim, a sign was noticed approximately two inches above the waterline, right where the edge of the road would have been. Helms made a small correction in the angle of the RDC to avoid the sign, which caused the RDC to turn broadside to the current because of the drastic increase in the water’s speed. After the RDC was broadside to the current, the downstream side hit the tree line, which pushed the upstream side underwater. This caused DeJames and Helms to be flushed out of the craft. DeJames was pushed to the river’s left side, which placed him right at the victim. Helms were pushed down and under and became entangled in a strainer made up of a barbed-wire fence and multiple small trees. When he came to rest in the strainer, the RDC was then pinned across his face. His head was under water; he could not touch the bottom, and he was facing upstream into the current. Helms was able to reach behind himself and work his way up by pulling on the small trees against which he was pinned. When he was able to get his head up enough to get a breath, he told DeJames that he was pinned.
As DeJames was heading to help to free him, Helms freed himself. Helms then handed DeJames his RDC paddle so he could unpin the RDC. When DeJames got the paddle, he realized that both of the paddle ends had been torn off the handle by the current, and he threw the paddle handle away. Both rescuers had flashlights torn off their PFDs by the current as well. As Helms unpinned the RDC, DeJames had the victim put on a PFD. To get the RDC to sit right in the water, Helms had to climb down one of the tree branches to keep the craft from again turning broadside. Once the RDC was righted and pointed back downstream, DeJames located his paddle and had the victim get on the RDC. The victim was in a small tree and was standing on a very small branch. She was exhausted and terrified. Once the victim was on the RDC, DeJames also boarded the RDC. As DeJames shoved off the tree, Helms left the branch on which he was hanging and swam to the RDC. The crew then went downstream a short distance and eddied out on river right. After turning the victim over to the ambulance that was on-scene, the crew stowed its equipment and got ready for the next call.
Truck 14 left Brown Road and went down Stout Parkway to search for some reported flood victims, but they were unable to locate any vehicles or signs of the victims. They then met with their relief crew and turned Truck 14 over to them.
MARY JANE DITTMAR is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager of FDIC. Before joining the magazine in January 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.