SEAVIEW — The biggest lesson to come out of the annual surf rescue drill Monday night wasn’t for the rescuers who took part.
It was for people calling in emergencies.
The message from the South Pacific County Technical Rescue Team was clear: If you call in an emergency, stay on the beach and make contact with response teams.
The reason is simple, said Doug Knutzen, president of the group: Rescuers need to know what the reporting party — the RP in emergency jargon — saw and where.
“The RP is huge,” he said, during a debriefing at Pacific County Fire District 1’s south station. “‘What did you see?’ That’s always been the biggest problems with calls, going to the wrong location or when the reporting party is not there. We need to reinforce that.”
The drill has been held 27 years. It is scheduled during the lead-up to summer to allow agencies — whose personnel often change — to have an opportunity to work together before having to do it for real, he said. “If we can get this groundwork set up before the rescue season, things will go much smoother.”
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Jessica Shafer, commanding officer at Cape Disappointment, echoed the importance of locating the person who calls in the emergency and asking them to repeat what they saw. Knowing how many people are in trouble is the most important key to a successful rescue.
“We will always be looking for some one to say, ‘All people are accounted for.’ That’s when we know: Job done!”
The incident commander must establish how many people are in the water. “You must question the victims,” she told assembled volunteer rescuers. “Question the first one and question the second one. We will keep searching until we have reason to do otherwise.”
Monday night, Shafer had good reason to be mentioning numbers: Her personnel were playing the victims.
She was the first person on the beach more than one-half hour before the drill was to begin. A 47-foot motor lifeboat from Cape D arrived soon afterward and waited offshore.
On board were USCG personnel who had volunteered to play “victims” by jumping into the Pacific Ocean and allowing themselves to be “saved.”
The drill was planned, but some details were kept secret. All the rescue team and related agencies knew was that early evening Monday they would receive a call about a “person in the water” off the Seaview Beach Approach.
What they didn’t know was that Shafer and Chief Boatswain’s Mate Conor Bennett had recruited six victims.
At exactly 6 p.m., Bennett called 911. He told the dispatcher “at least three people” were in the ocean and was intentionally vague about the details.
Dispatchers knew the call was coming, but acted as if it was real.
Rescuers were “tapped out” on emergency radio frequencies.
District 1 personnel arrived within minutes. Assistant Chief Mike Karvia checked in with Bennett, playing the 911 caller, knowing he would be wearing an orange jacket because the dispatcher had asked him.
Karvia established himself as on-site incident commander, then recruited Jared Capps from the PacCom dispatch center to record every detail of the multi-agency response.
“The value of the scribe cannot be overstated,” Karvia said afterward. “A highly complex and technical rescue out in the surf is overwhelming, and it’s impossible for me to keep track of every minute.”
Clad in wetsuits, Knutzen and his surf rescue team showed up with jet skis. They unloaded the first, mounted and roared off through Monday night’s moderately gentle breakers.
They launched a second rig and were soon shuttling the “victims” to shore. With Capt. Steve Bellinger directing his troops, District 1 personnel offloaded them from the watercraft onto backboards and carried them to ambulances parked on the sand. Most were shivering with cold, but all were smiling. And all were wearing lifejackets, a key to ocean survival.
Other agencies responding with emergency vehicles included Pacific County Sheriff Robin Souvenir and his undersheriff, Ron Davis, plus crews from Medix Ambulance, Long Beach Police and Fire departments, and Jaime Souvenir from the 911 dispatch center.
Long Beach City Manager Dave Glasson arrived with a camera-mounted drone, which he launched to help rescuers pinpoint people in the water.
Other agencies, including Ocean Beach Hospital, were alerted, following a protocol that spreads information about major incidents in case additional help is needed.
The debriefing was upbeat. Notes were taken to improve some radio communications and notifications.
The “victims” — some still dripping wet — chowed down on the tasty enchilada buffet and relived the experience with broad smiles. (All were aware of the irony of the role reversal.)
“It was very professional,” said Seaman Brian Seehawer. “They asked [about] my symptoms. It is great to know that we have people with these capabilities. They were very capable and professional.”
His comments were reinforced by colleague Elijah Johnston, who was especially interested in the technique the surf rescue team used to skillfully transfer him from one rig to another.
He said from the moment he jumped off the motor lifeboat until he was safely in the ambulance was nine minutes. “That’s a pretty good response time.”
On the beach, Knutzen had given Karvia a thumbs-up signal as Jeff Chabot, Jeff Hengst and Jennifer Harkin from his rescue team were already winching the jet skis back onto their trailers.
Karvia nodded to Capps to take note of the time then keyed his hand-held radio. “All personnel and watercraft are out of the water,” the long-time career firefighter announced to a countywide audience. “This training evolution is terminated.”
Thirty-eight minutes had elapsed.
Eight agencies had taken an active part; a handful of others had been alerted.
And six lives were saved.