More than 50 fire boats participated in exercises on DeGray and the nearby Caddo River – training for worst-case scenarios when seconds count. Crews participating in the training, as well as teams of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission crews, rescued 13 from overturned canoes and high water in one day. Crews barely had time to return home that evening before several fire departments responded to drownings and accidents on waterways in their local districts.
Fire Boat School is the largest inland marine boat-training event offered in the United States. Among the 50 crews were teams from neighboring Texas and Louisiana. The school remains one of the best events available to train Arkansas volunteers in how to most effectively, and in the safest way possible, protect Arkansas families as they enjoy one of summer's most favored pastimes – the water. Bringing together crews from across the state to train as a team is an invaluable exercise in terms of communication, incident command, medical experience and firefighter boat crew skills in general.
"Boat school was bigger than ever this year," said Bill Barnes, Arkansas Fire Boat Committee chairman. "This training event is a wonderful testimony to the spirit of Arkansas and its citizens because it captures teamwork, true heart, and a passion for learning and training – all exhibited by firefighters and their families."
Boat crews participated in scenarios that involved an entire scale of water emergency skills including basic boat operations, victim rescue from the water, boat wreck response, dock fire response, island fire response and skills needed to work between fire boats and fire engines on land. Hands-on medical and fire personnel from the U.S Coast Guard, Arkansas Fire Academy, LifeNet Ambulance and Air Evac provided briefings before and after scenarios to ensure that crews took away a full understanding of how each scenario could take place on local waterways. Dinner and lunch were provided over the weekend, thanks to support from Sysco Foods and Subway.
Crews came from Garland, Hot Spring, Saline, Montgomery, Clark, Desha, Chicot, Baxter and Lawrence counties. While boat school is about training first and foremost, a bit of friendly competition always encourages crews to do their best. Awards listed below were given to respective departments for outstanding performance in each scenario. Grading criteria included communication skills, teamwork, basic safety performance and patient triage.
Best Crew for Island Fire Scenario: Flower Mound, Texas
Best Crew for Fire Stream Operations: Van Buren County
Best Crew for Boat and Personal Water Craft Accident: Joplin (Montgomery County)
Best Crew for Defensive Boat Operations: Lake Maumelle (Pulaski County)
Best Crew for Tanker Refill: Lake Hamilton (Hot Spring County)
Best Crew for Dock Fire: Jessieville (Garland County)
Best Overall Large Boat Award: Lake Village (Chicot County)
Best Defensive Small Boat Operations Crew: Conway (Faulkner County)
Best Small Boat Victim-in-Water Scenario Crew: Haskell (Saline County)
Best Crew for Small Boat Operations: Alexander (Saline County)
Best Overall Small Boat Crew: New Orleans, La.
Arkansas Fire Boat School is an effort of the Arkansas Fire Boat Committee, operating alongside the Arkansas Forestry Commission, to distribute fire boats through the Federal Excess Property Program and keep crews with boats trained. Major sponsors and supporters for the 2011 event included the AGFC, Arkansas Forestry Commission, Arkansas Fire Academy, Coast Guard, Air Evac Lifeteam, Subway, LifeNet, Sysco Foods, Iron Mountain Lodge and Marina, Elkhart Brass/Pierce Fire Trucks, Arkansas Health Department, as well as several Arkansas fire departments including Buckville, Conway, Haskell, Malvern, Jessieville, Joplin, Lake Hamilton and Lake Village.
The Arkansas Fire Boat Committee was created eight years ago to help the Arkansas Forestry Commission manage and distribute fire equipment to departments in need of fire boat capabilities. Boats distributed by request range from 16 feet to 47 feet. In short, fire departments with waterways in their response area request boats from the committee, then committee members work with them to complete paperwork and decide what type of boat is best for each district. Fire Boat School was created to support these departments. As the event has grown, however, private boats also participate in training – which makes the event even more valuable to the state and firefighters.
Robert Summerville, AFC Rural Fire Program coordinator, said he had no idea that the program would grow so much when it was started.
"What is so great, however, is that not only are more fire boats being distributed to fire crews, we are also beginning to see a bigger interest in the training and preparedness levels of firefighters and rescue teams. Safety is our biggest priority – and training is the key to that," Summerville said.