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State urges better training for water rescues

Fire marshal report analyzes first responder drowning

A state report on the drowning death of a St. George Island first responder, who perished Aug. 25 while attempting to rescue swimmers swept up in rough surf conditions, has come down hard on the island's volunteer fire department.

In a line of duty death report, completed by Mike Tucker, chief of the Bureau of Fire Standards and Training within the Florida Department of Financial Services’ Division of State Fire Marshal, the 10 recommendations included a notice of violation based upon the investigation’s findings.

The report also stipulated the department provide water rescue training, available through the Red Cross as well as the United States Lifesaving Association, and familiarization in basic surface water rescue to all responders who may be called to enter the water.

“Until the training is completed, personnel should not be allowed to perform water rescues,” reads the report.

Authorized by state law to investigate the causes of firefighter injuries, illnesses, safety-based complaints, or line of duty deaths, and to issue recommendations as to the facts surrounding a water rescue line of duty death to arrive at the best means of preventing future injuries, Tucker’s report outlines a series of departmental deficiencies that led to the death of Brian Stephen Smith, 56, who entered the water in rough surf conditions to rescue an adult man and his 14-year-old son.

Smith, a member of the fire department for four years, who had completed 206 hours of Florida Firefighter I training in Sept. 2018, “entered the rough surf with no flotation or water equipment to attempt a rescue,” read the report.

“Water rescue equipment that is provided by (the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department) has not been trained on in a practical or realistic setting to include its limitations to ensure competency with the issued equipment,” it went on to cite, as a contributing factor to Smith’s death, as well as “(a) lack of operational guidelines or policies that outline various steps, and tactical measures for surf rescue events on the beach.”

To research his report, Tucker conducted a site visit and interviews on Sept. 3, a little over a week after the incident. He reviewed written statements by members of the department, as well as a group interview with four members of the sheriff’s office and one-on-one interviews with four members of the fire department.

“During the interviews it was discovered that none of the individual responders and rostered volunteers have any formalized water rescue or surf rescue training through an official accredited training agency such as American Red Cross or United States Lifesaving Association,” he wrote. “According to the fire chief, the individuals identified and rostered as water rescue are some of his younger members.”

Tucker found that personal protective equipment used for this incident were two lifeguard water rescue “cans” and two first responder medical bags, to include medical oxygen cylinder and department-issued VHF portable radios.

At least two members had water rescue cans assigned to them in the event of a water rescue. On-site interviews revealed the cans were issued though no formalized training or skill check off had been implemented.

“It should be noted that according to the fire chief, both water cans were apparently lost in the rough surf at the incident and were never retrieved,” read the report.

“Identify equipment that is specific to water/surf rescue and make it available to those trained in this function,” recommended the report. “Maintenance of the equipment needs to be completed and documented.”

In his report, Tucker described the weather as sunny and warm with a temperature recorded at noon of 88 degrees, and winds 10-11 mph out of the east-southeast. The report said those interviewed reported “moderate crowds,” with about one or two dozen patrons at the beach access where the incident occurred.

“The rough surf conditions (eight to 10-foot swells) to include double red flags flying and the high probability of rip currents contributed to this incident,” Tucker wrote.

The report said the call to sheriff’s dispatch came in at around 2 p.m. that two swimmers were in distress at 1048 East Gorrie Ave. Chief Kevin Delahanty and two other first responders responded after clearing a prior water rescue incident on the west side of the Island near the Bob Sikes Cut.

Smith was one of the first two members of the department to arrive, and removed his shoes and shirt and entered the water to attempt rescue of the father, and his 14-year-old son, as did the first arriving deputy. Within minutes others from the fire department and sheriff’s office arrived, and assisted getting the boy to shore, then entered the water.

“The first arriving deputy began to struggle and was returned to shore for medical evaluation. The second arriving deputy that arrived remove his issued law enforcement gear, checked on the first deputy and then entered the water only to be overcome within minutes and was assisted back to the beach after ingesting large amounts of saltwater,” read Tucker’s report.

A respiratory therapy nurse on the beach attended to the officer, who was later administered oxygen by a first responder.

Delahanty asked firefighter Jerry Lowe to deploy one of his personal watercraft from his rental location and respond east to the scene, according to the report. Lowe told investigators that “it took a few minutes to get through the rough surf and head east due to the condition of the day but was successful in doing so.

“He arrived to find ‘several heads’ bobbing in the rough surf and he positioned himself with the help of the fire chief directing him via hand signals from the beach to turn away from shore to rescue the distressed swimmers,” read the report.

Tucker wrote that when Lowe encountered the father, he “found him to be almost incoherent from exhaustion.” He pulled him up onto the jet ski and headed to shore, where first responders and medical personnel with a Weems ambulance were on the scene, said the report.

Lowe then returned on his jet ski to address three firefighters, Smith, George Joslin and Dan Fortunas “who appeared to be close together with one hanging on to the other,” read the report, noting Joslin had entered the water wearing a personal life vest, and the two others had rescue bullets.

The report said Smith entered the water with no equipment and Fortunas entered with a rescue can.

“Joslin reached Smith as they would get separated by pounding surf and Smith grabbed onto Joslin from behind, gripping the rear neck portion of the Joslin’s life vest,” read the report. “At times Joslin stated he had Smith in his arms trying to move them both back to shore before they would get caught again in the rough surf and separating them.”

Fortunas headed out with a second rescue can he got from a deputy, and called out to Smith to see if he could hold onto it. “Fortunas stated that though Smith did not verbally reply, he nodded (yes) and motioned towards the can and grabbed onto it,” read the report, noting that Lowe had by then taken out three additional life vests from the jet ski compartment.

Fortunas told the investigator that as they were readying to return to shore, “a large wave struck them and as a result the three were separated by an estimated 20 to 30 feet.”

When Joslin surfaced, he could no longer see the other two men, “and as a result started making effort towards shore, exhausted.”

Lowe and Fortunas found Smith face down in the water, and worked to retrieve him and establish his airway. Lowe jumped from the jet ski to secure Smith, and Fortunas climbed onto the jet ski to pull the other two men in. “However the kill switch key, essential to the jet ski starting, was attached to Lowe’s wrist,” read the report. “The surf now pushing them towards shore, Lowe began swimming towards shore with Smith, and Fortunas (stayed) on the jet ski and ‘surfed’ it in to the shore.”

A series of back blows to clear Smith’s airway, and CPR were administered on shore, as the stricken firefighter was placed on the tailgate of a truck, and later the ambulance and quickly rushed to Weems.

Tucker recommended in his report that the fire department “reevaluate the usefulness of (its) jet ski and consider the placement of more than one along the island that can be available for rapid deployment when necessary.” He also recommended having a United States Lifesaving Association certified trainer provide familiarization and skills check off for personal watercraft.

In his report, Tucker said both Delahanty and the sheriff’s office noted the scene was “chaotic” and that it was difficult to identify who were the actual victims and who were the rescuers through the course of the event.

He recommended the fire department “work closely with law enforcement officials to create joint training opportunities as well as close coordination and communication prior to a water-related emergency.

“Work closely with local county officials and tourist development council to provide proactive messaging and education regarding beach flags and surf dangers for visitors and residents,” was another recommendation, a step that the county, in concert with the Tourist Development Council, quickly put into place.

Tucker recommended the fire department consider purchase and use of a rescue “sled” designed for jet skis in rough surf conditions, and explore grant opportunities for additional equipment and training to protect first responders.

He also called for a complete evaluation of the fire department’s water rescue capabilities for its 22-miles of Gulf shoreline as well as the corresponding waterfront on the bayside of the island. He noted that there are no written procedures regarding water rescue incidents for the fire department.

“Generic overview and instructions have been given on the water rescue equipment such as life vests, lifeguard rescue cans and a personal flotation device with a throw rope, though nothing has been documented or provided in skills check off format,” Tucker wrote. “Incident management in a rapidly unfolding chaotic event requires establish communication between rescuers and the incident commander.”

This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: State urges better training for water rescues

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

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