Thursday, 01 April 2021 14:11

Sandhills first responders train for water rescues in Pee Dee River

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First responders take a water rescue certification course at the Pee Dee River. First responders take a water rescue certification course at the Pee Dee River. Bob Smith - Richmond County Emergency Services

ROCKINGHAM — With the weather warming up, more people will be hitting Hitchcock Creek and the Pee Dee River for water-related recreation.


But sometimes boaters get into trouble.

That’s when first responders trained in swift water and flood rescue spring into action.

Eighteen first responders from across the Sandhills wrapped their in-water practicals just before noon Thursday at the boat landing near the bridge on the Pee Dee River.

Those students hailed from the Rockingham Fire Department, Cordova Fire and Rescue and Rescue 2 in Richmond County; West End Fire Department in Moore County; and the Hope Mills Fire Department and Fayetteville Police Department in Cumberland County.

The state certification course, which began Sunday and ends Friday, is being led by Capt. Michael Bartch of the Fayetteville Fire Department.

While the temperatures have lowered over the past several days, the river’s level has been rising.

“The water coming up is better for us,” Bartch said. “The faster the water’s moving, the more realisting the training scenarios are.”

According to the Rockingham Fire Department’s 2020 Annual Report, five of its 523 calls for search and water rescue.

Richmond County Emergency Services Director Bob Smith, who stopped by to watch the training on Thursday, said there have been 14 water rescue calls since 2018.

“The majority of these incidents took place on the Pee Dee River between the dam and the South Carolina line, as well as along Hitchcock Creek,” Smith said.

There are currently five agencies in the county — Rockingham Fire Department, Hamlet Fire and Rescue, Cordova Fire and Rescue, Hoffman Fire and Rescue, Ellerbe Rescue  — that hold surface (still) water certifications, according to Smith. Cordova is the only agency certified for swift water rescue.

Bartch said he’s taught the class at the Pee Dee in the past when the river was more shallow and trainees had to be careful not to damage the equipment, including the boats’ propellers.

“When the water level’s up, we can run the boats and not have to worry about rocks and get good-scenario based training,” Bartch said.

This is the third time the class has been at the Pee Dee River, but normally is taught near Tar Heel in Bladen County because of a low-head dam built with rocks which allows for more technical rope rescue training, “using ropework to get the boats exactly where we need them to perform the rescues,” according to Bartch.

One advantage to training on the Pee Dee between Richmond and Anson counties, Bartch said, is they’re able to use the concrete barriers of the bridge to perform some of the scenarios.

While some of the students served as rescuers, others acted as victims.

Most on Thursday were wearing wetsuits, however Bartch said drysuits — which are more expensive — are more necessary, especially in flooding situations like during hurricanes.

“When you flood an area, it becomes a HAZMAT incident,” Bartch said. “You have no idea what’s in that water. This river water here, people swim in it — safe. But you flood an area that’s got hog lagoons, turkey houses, or just in a neighborhood —everything people’s got in their garage or kitchen sink is now in the water … so the drysuits provide that protection … and provide that thermal protection as well.”

The cooler air and water temperatures were better for drysuit training, Bartch said, because wearing a drysuit during the summer heat can lead to dehydration.

The weather also provided another advantage.

“When it’s cooler, less bugs, less snakes to worry about ,” Bartch said. “I prefer it that way.”