Vashon Island Fire & Rescue is moving ahead with developing a rescue swimmer program, after various members of the district were divided in recent months about the program’s merits.
At the Aug. 28 board meeting, the five commissioners voted unanimously to direct Chief Charlie Krimmert to draft operating protocols for the program, which the district first launched in 2016, but never fully implemented.
“Now I have to create a program that I think is fiscally responsible and provides the maximum safety for the community and my firefighters,” Krimmert said in a conversation following the meeting.
Chair Brigitte Schran Brown was instrumental in the creation of the program three years ago, securing funding from Vashon Rotary to purchase a rescue paddle board, two wet suits and other equipment for the three members of the department who volunteered for the training. But she said the departure of then-Chief Hank Lipe and Assistant Chief George Brown, followed by hiring a new chief and then dealing with the financial challenges at the district, mothballed the project for awhile. With talk of bringing it back, Krimmert formally suspended the program in January to more fully investigate it.
He raised a variety of concerns about developing the program, among them that the district does not respond to a high number of water-related calls, that it could take valuable training time away from working on the skills most often used, and it could jeopardize the safety of firefighters involved. He noted in particular that rescue swimming is the only time the firefighters — who always work in pairs for safety — would operate alone.
Others in the district saw the situation differently, including commissioner Brown, who noted that the island has more than 100,000 beach front visitors a year and several water-based activities that many people participate in. She estimates the district responds to three to 30 calls at or near the water each year, including four so far this year.
“We have a significant number of people who use our shores, and we need to be able to help them,” she said.
She said she hopes to write a grant that will cover the cost of new equipment and supplies necessary, including another rescue paddle board and wet suits.
Vashon firefighter/emergency medical technician Ben Davidson was also active in creating the program in 2016 and was one of the firefighters to complete the rigorous swimming training at the time. He said he is pleased that the program will likely move ahead now, adding that 12 of the district’s 13 career firefighters have expressed interest in volunteering for it.
With training — provided at no extra cost to the district through the South King County Fire Training Consortium — and the right equipment, Davidson said rescue swimmers can respond to calls far more readily than by relying on the district’s boat, which can be launched from only two places on the island, either Burton or Dockton.
“We have the ability anywhere on the island, with swim gear and a paddle board, to launch from the closest location and get out to the patient,” he said.
Davidson said he has been on multiple calls, where water response capabilities would have been helpful. One was for a man who fell out of his kayak, another for a boater who fell out of his dinghy and another for children floating away on a log at KVI. Trained rescue swimmers could have readily launched a paddle board from shore and assisted but had no means to do so.
The swimming program could change that.
“I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to help the community that is taking advantage of one of our best natural resource, the Puget Sound — enjoying it, exploring, getting exercise and having fun,” he said.
Now, Krimmert said he has moved beyond his reservations about the program and will look to establish policies to help ensure safety. One of those will be following through on a requirement that commissioner Candy McCullough insisted upon: that there be two swimmers on each call, although one may remain on shore. Krimmert said he suspects that one of the components of the program will not be about sending firefighters to swimming training and launching them on paddle boards, but about teaching the public what they need to know to enjoy the cold water of Puget Sound safely. He also cautioned the public to recognize that although the district is planning to implement this program, it will take some time to do so and will be voluntary for staff members, so there may not be swimmers on every shift.
“Because we have rescue swimmers does not mean we will have one the day you need help,” he said.