Drill tests Nikiski rescuers

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2004


  Rescuers from Nikiski Fire Department return to shore with the "victims" of a rescue drill held in Cook Inlet Friday. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Rescuers from Nikiski Fire Department return to shore with the "victims" of a rescue drill held in Cook Inlet Friday.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

At approximately 2:40 p.m. Friday afternoon, two men plunged off the side of Agrium's North Kenai dock and into the murky, frigid waters of Cook Inlet. Within seconds, an alarm on the dock sounded, and soon a call had been placed to 911.

Had this been a real emergency, the two men would have found themselves in a life-threatening ordeal. Thanks to their heavy dry suits, however, they were able to kick back and relax as the tide slowly swept them out to sea.

The men were Barry Wheeler and Jamie Harris, divers and emergency medical technicians who work for the Nikiski Fire Department. They were the "lucky" two chosen to play victims in a joint drill conducted Friday by Agrium, the fire department, the U.S. Coast Guard, Era Aviation and Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc.

According to Nikiski Battalion Chief Greg Hyatt, the importance of running drills like the one Friday is to ensure proper procedures are in place when a real emergency takes place.

"We try to do them at least once a year," Hyatt said of the man overboard drill.

Normally, Hyatt said Nikiski divers would respond to the scene by helicopter, and drop divers and a boat to the victims from the air. On Friday, however, the fire department responded to the emergency by launching its rescue boat from shore.

From the time the call went out from Agrium that there were two men in the water, it took the department approximately 11 minutes to get the boat in the water. By 2:54 p.m., the department located the victims and a minute later they pulled the men into the boat.

While the fire department was responding to the call, Agrium personnel at the dock were doing their part to ensure a successful rescue took place.

Once the men went into the water, dock workers began communicating with the fire department and the CISPRI vessel Montana, which was patrolling offshore. Agrium workers also deployed a number of inflatable buoys, as a way to try and get some flotation to the men and mark their position for the possible rescue helicopter.

Because tides in Cook Inlet can be strong, it's helpful to use buoys to essentially draw a line showing where the victims have drifted.

Agrium safety manager Rick Warren said the company puts a high priority on being safe and does this type of drill at least once a year.

"We are very concerned with safety," he said.

Once someone goes in the water, having a well-planned and rapid response is key to ensuring survival. Hyatt said his divers and emergency personnel can respond to just about any kind of water emergency, whether it's in calm water like Friday or icy seas in the middle of the winter.

"We have a lot of resources to utilize," he said.

In a real emergency, the fire department, along with the Coast Guard, CISPRI, Era and any private boaters in the area, would be used to help. In such a situation, Hyatt said the most important thing is for whoever is in the water to remain calm until help arrives at the scene.

"If you have some form of flotation and you do OK psychologically, you have an excellent chance of surviving," he said.

Luckily for everyone in-volved, surviving wasn't a problem Friday. Dry and warm in their suits, the "victims" were never in any danger. However, were it a real emergency, they likely would have been saved, thanks to the quick response of the fire department and well-drilled employees on the dock.

"It went very smooth," Hyatt said.

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