ARKADELPHIA (AGFC) – Wildlife officers from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission joined 34 fire boat crews from Arkansas, Texas and Missouri, Friday and Saturday for the annual Arkansas Fire Boat School at DeGray Lake and the Caddo River.
More than 30 enforcement staff from the AGFC served as instructors for the event, which included 338 total attendees, 45 fire boats and a rescue helicopter.
This is the 13th year for the special training event, which hosts a variety of staged emergency scenarios fire boat teams are likely to encounter during the course of their job duties.
"We try to incorporate lifelike emergency situations based on real events that have happened in Arkansas," said Adriane Barnes, director of communications for the Arkansas Agriculture Department. "Scenarios usually include an array of simulated incidents including a wildfire response, defensive boat operations, medical scenarios with live victims and oftentimes live fire, as well as scenarios mixed with unique challenges like a sinking boat or a wrecked plane."
Capt. Greg Rae with the AGFC says the school began as a way for agencies to work together more efficiently during a crisis situation to make sure emergencies were handled while preserving evidence.
"Many volunteer fire departments would do an excellent job of putting out a fire or rescuing someone from the water, but would unknowingly move boat controls or throttles that were essential in our investigations after the incident occurred," Rae said. "For us, the school started as a way to teach what sort of evidence we needed them to preserve, but has enabled us to teach them much more about things like locating areas using GPS systems and handling their boats defensively during emergency situations."
The school has grown over the years to incorporate more situations first responders on the water may face. This year's event was split into two sections: large-water scenarios held on DeGray Lake and small boat operations on the Caddo River.
"We had such a demand for smaller boat training that we expanded the event several years ago to include scenarios specifically designed for the operation of smaller vessels on small Arkansas rivers and streams," Barnes said. "It's a totally different animal from rescues and fire operations on larger lakes."
Barnes says many of the crews attending the school are from volunteer fire departments and have to travel on their own dime to attend the training. But getting firsthand experience dealing with some of the scenarios may mean the difference between a successful rescue and tragedy.
"Each training scenario is put together and overseen by an agency or group with specialized knowledge on the subject," Barnes said. "The Arkansas Forestry Commission designs a wildfire incident, the AGFC creates a serpentine course each year to address boat maneuvering and vessel operator skills, Air Evac and LifeNet Helicopter teams work with medical personnel to simulate emergency scenes including live victims, and a host of fire departments provide input and organize incidents that may mimic a plane crash, a sinking boat, boat wreck or other water emergency."
Rae says the training is extremely valuable to the volunteers as well as the instructors.
"It really has built a relationship between us and volunteer fire department first responders, Rae said. "Everyone is able to work as a unit much more efficiently. We know their roles and they know what we need from them. This year we even had our communications supervisor and five other full-time 911 operators from other agencies to give participants the exact feel as though they were communicating with real dispatchers during the exercises."
Once the staged scenarios have played out, participants are evaluated on their performance and allowed to give feedback about the scenarios, so that all involved can walk away better prepared for an emergency in real life.