Miss. Firefighters Conduct Swift Water Rescues for Irma Victims in Fla.
Sept. 16—TUPELO—Two Tupelo Fire Department captains helped residents and animals outside of Jacksonville, Florida escape the flood waters associated with Hurricane Irma this week.
As volunteer members of Mississippi Task Force 1, captains Jesse Clock of Station 2 and Brad Robinson of Station 1 go through a host of additional training each year. That includes swift water search and rescue.
"We were in a neighborhood that was completely flooded and looked like a lake," Clock said. "But when you got close to the river (Black Creek), the water was moving fast."
"All of the water had a current of 3-5 knots," Robinson said. "Around the river, it was flowing about 25 knots, which is pretty swift."
The Tupelo firefighters were part of a 36-man group made of Task Force members across the state. They traveled in a convoy of 18-wheelers and trucks hauling boats and trailers full of equipment. After waiting in the Florida panhandle for the storm to pass, the Mississippi crews were dispatched Tuesday to Middleburg, Florida, southwest of Jacksonville, where rain-swollen creeks and rivers were still rising.
The Mississippi Task Force was split into boat crews and began answering calls. Clock and Robinson were in the Tupelo Fire Department boat and their crew included a local sheriff's deputy who knew the area.
"Residents had been told to get out but not everybody did," Clock said. "Folks told us the river hadn't gotten that high in 40 years. A lot of folks waited until it was knee-deep in their yard or coming up to the door of the house before they decided to call 911.
"Sometimes, as we would bring people out to dry ground, they would tell us about someone else they knew who was still in their house so we would go check those out as well."
In addition to rescuing four people, the firemen also rescued four animals.
"I carried out a Doberman Pinscher," Robinson said. "When I first saw him, I was concerned, but he was still a young dog and scared of the water. I was more scared when they said they had a cat, thinking what a cat could do to a $1,500 dry suit (the rescuers wore). Thankfully, it was in a pet carrier.
"A lot of people will (stay in their house despite rising water) because of their animals. We told them we couldn't keep the animals but we could get them to dry land. That was enough for them to let us get them all in a boat."
In July, the Task Force 1 members trained for flood water boat operations in the large lake at Tupelo's Veterans Memorial Park. They worked on how to navigate around submerged items and how to approach people in the water.
"It's hard to simulate real life scenarios during training," Robinson said. "The boat was going over fences and the tops of cars. The training gets you more familiar with the boat.
"The biggest thing was to be prepared for the unknown. Even though we were doing swift water rescue, we were ready to switch into structure collapse or overland search and rescue if needed."
First responders from across the state volunteer to be part of the Task Forces. While many volunteered to go on the hurricane relief mission, spaces were limited and people were selected based on their skill sets.
While the firefighters only ended up working one full day on the water before returning home, they expected to be gone much longer.
"We were prepared to stay two weeks," Clock said. "We had food and equipment for that long."
"Initially, we thought we were going to be covering the Gulf side, from Tallahassee all the way down to Tampa," Robinson said. "Once we got there, they started talking about sending us to the Florida Keys, since they were hit so bad and we were already that close."
That additional 11-hour drive to the southernmost point in the continental United States never materialized. The swift water boats were needed more in the Jacksonville area. As the flood waters receded, the Mississippi swift water volunteers were released. They drove all day Thursday to get back to Lee County.
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo