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Serve – Save – Survive: water rescue program brought to light

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The 30th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department was awarded the “Best Fire Department in the Air Force,” and the “Best Fire Department in the Department of Defense” for 2018. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) --

All that stands between Fire Station 5 and 2,553 nautical miles of Pacific Ocean before reaching Hawaii is Ocean Ave. and the AMTRAC railway. In the face of this great expanse, and with 43 miles of coastline belonging to the base, the need for an atypical set of training has continually evolved since its inception.

The 30th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department innovated new ways for first responders to serve their populace along the coastline and in the water. According to Alani Coleman, 30th CES firefighter and water rescue personnel, at any time, Vandenberg AFB beaches can have anywhere from 150 to 200 people. With 14 years experience at the 30th CES, Coleman has earned his share of learning opportunities that, along with others, have created a better program.

“I was part of the water rescue program early in my career as a Hotshot,” Coleman said. “Soon after transitioning over to the floor (Fire Station 5), we got reports of a small ‘dingy’, an aluminum boat, overturned from the surf with three people on board … and one was missing. Around 9 or 10 at night, the call came through so we quickly loaded up our (aquatic rescue vehicles). In pitch black, we drove down to the boat house, and lowered the ARVs into the water. There were some lights down there, but it was still pretty dark.”

Unaware of the effect the poor lighting would have, Coleman stepped onto his ARV with Nate Ogan, 30th CES firefighter and water rescue program lead. Wearing black wetsuits and riding two subtly-colored Jet Skis, they started their grid-pattern search. Starting from the last point of origin they rode 20 meters parallel to the shore before cutting back, creating a zigzag pattern in complete darkness.

“We were hoping for a spotlight the whole time … we were very aware of the fleeting ‘golden hour,’” Coleman said. ”Golden hour is a period of time following a traumatic injury where there is the highest likelihood that medical treatment will prevent death. As time passed, our response changed, as far as emergency first aid. Anything after two hours is likely a body recovery. If they were in the water, the survivability was extremely low.”

For the next 48 hours, Coleman and Ogan used everything within their control to ‘Serve-Save-Survive’, which is the Vandenberg Fire Department motto. Sometimes though, situations are at the whim of forces more powerful than just darkness.

“There were lightning and thunderstorms, so they called everybody back in,” Coleman said. “They said ‘you know there is going to be lightning in the area, and the Coast Guard is going to be able to search in a helicopter a lot better than we are.’ We were all so fatigued at that point since we had hit the 48-hour mark trying to search for this person. We tried to do everything we could, but it just wasn’t working in the weather. Unfortunately, the family caught word and was waiting down there. That is the worst feeling ever. At that point you just want to give them closure so it was really hard to pull back, but we did.”

While the Coast Guard took over the search, Coleman and Ogan went back to service their gear with the expectation of a call if anything was to be found, but they never received that call. As evening approached and the tides dropped, the victim was located, wrapped in kelp just below the surface of where they had searched. After reflecting on the rescue with visible empathy, Ogan explained how they had followed procedures.

“Every rescue presents its own challenges,” Ogan said. “We are constantly having to innovate better ways of doing things. A lot of the methods are tried and true; they’ve been around forever. Ninety percent of the world uses the same standards that we uphold through (United State Life Saving Association). We maintain a certain level of fitness just to participate, and if you can swim, that is your best defense against drowning or an emergency.”

As with every after-action report, Coleman and Ogan found great strengths of theirs and also room to innovate new initiatives from the rescue attempt. Coleman’s’ confidence in his posture said it all, communication with other helping agencies is one of their greatest strengths.

“We actually had mutual aid with Santa Barbara County,” Coleman said. “They have a really good water rescue program and when they came, we all meshed. It was awesome because we try to model ourselves off of our surrounding areas. We try to mimic their (standard operating procedures) so when we do work with them, we are speaking the same language.”

The water rescue program is not only supported by Santa Barbara County, but also the state of California. Coleman and Ogan were able to survive and perform their duties that night because they had trained for similar situations.

“A lot of preparation goes into this,” Coleman said. “We go to classes through California Fire, like surf operations which is basically for the rescue swimmer. We also go to a rescue water craft class which specializes just on the operator and using the Jet Ski in a multitude of conditions. This three-day course is filled with different craft drills and concludes with a nighttime evolution, just to get operators comfortable in different situations that can arise.”

For 72 hours, operators are taxed with difficult situations. It was not until a difficult real-world scenario hit their “desks” that they began to innovate new ways to further improve their service to Vandenberg AFB.

“The water is cold out here so we have to have thick wetsuits,” Ogan said. “We have rocks, sea urchins and other sharp things so we have booties. One of the things we realized during that rescue was that our wetsuits are black, so we just weren’t visible. Even if we have floodlights from several helicopters, we were invisible. We started using long-sleeved, yellow rash guards, so now we are incredibly visible. With our water crafts, we have gotten as bright as we can get.”

Not only have they changed their color, but they also have invested in underwater lights, goggles, snorkels, fins and a plethora of new rescue equipment should the need arise. All of this done so that they can serve, save and survive even better.

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