Exercise provides vital hands-on training for lifesaving tactics

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Vessels from Portland, Clark County, Wash., and Scappoose take to the Columbia River in St. Helens for a multi-agency training exercise with a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. The exercise gave agencies practice scenarios for water and land-based rescues.As a U.S. Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter hovered above the Columbia River in St. Helens Friday, Feb. 12, birds scattered as emergency responder boats moved in toward the aircraft.

Firefighters from Scappoose Fire District, the Port of Portland, Portland Fire and Rescue, and Clark County Fire convened at the docks behind the Columbia County Courthouse for a day-long training exercise. Deputies in a small marine vessel from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office also participated, while Columbia County’s Emergency Management staff stood by on a nearby dock, communicating by hand-held radios.

The exercise, which started at the Scappoose airport, gave emergency responders real life scenarios — ranging from swiftwater rescue and radio communication to helicopter loading.

“This kind of training is invaluable,” said Jeff Pricher, division chief with Scappoose Fire District. “That last thing you want to have to do is learn this stuff on the fly.”

Pricher coordinated the training exercises as sort of a get-together between agencies that provide mutual aid to each other.

Utilizing helicopters and boats during emergency rescues isn’t uncommon in the county, but oddly, not all emergency responders are trained for those scenarios. SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Steve Pegram and Vincent Aarts with the Columbia County Office of Emergency Management communicate dockside, testing radio communications with crews aboard fire agency boats. Several emergency response crews convened for a training exercise using boats and a helicopter.

Scappoose Fire District is the only rescue agency in Columbia County with the resources for marine rescue, Pricher said. It’s also the only agency equipped to handle a swiftwater rescue.

In December, the district’s firefighters were called out to a swiftwater rescue in Clatskanie, where a Jeep made its way into heavy flood waters with two passengers trapped inside.

The water was nearly chest-deep, and rescue crews couldn’t immediately locate the SUV. The Jeep’s driver was able to free himself, though his wife died inside.

Friday’s training exercise allowed crews to practice loading swiftwater gear into a helicopter, but more importantly, it reminded them just how powerful the aircraft’s rotors can be.

“The rotor wash is pretty close to gale force, so when you’re operating underneath it, it’s pretty significant,” Pricher noted.

“We were practicing what it would take if we had to raise a patient off a boat using the helicopter, if the boat was either underway or standing at station,” Pricher explained.

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