The Need for Training: Tested Under Extreme Conditions

We often hear from our troops, “Training again, man that’s all we do!” and “Why do we need this?”

Such is often the case among some of the nation’s bravest, though I have to say right here, the department I have now—Harker Heights, Tex.—didn’t have that attitude when I arrived here a little over five years ago.

One thing I did notice upon my arrival, however, was that we didn’t have anyone trained in swiftwater or any type of water rescue.

Harker Heights is located in Central Texas next to Killeen and Ft. Hood. It’s part of the Texas Hill Country and, as such, has some hills and sudden elevation changes, a creek that can turn into a raging torrent at times and Stillhouse Hollow Lake on our southern border.

After serving as chief for the cities of Del Rio (flood of August 1998) and New Braunfels (floods of October 1998 and 2001) and superintendent of fire for Jefferson Parish, La. (Katrina and Rita), I have a profound respect and understanding when Mother Nature gets upset.

So, it didn’t take too long before I received a donated swiftwater boat, motor and trailer from our local boat dealership. I then asked for members who wanted to receive swiftwater-rescue training to let my office know, and I arranged for them to travel to New Braunfels, one of the best places in the United States to get water-rescue training.

Of course, while all this was going on, there was some snickering about us for sending our people to play in the resort of New Braunfels.

Later, due to our close working relationship with the Texas Department of Wildlife, we were able to obtain one of their boats as well. This brought our “navy” to two boats capable of operating in calm or swift water.

The night of September 7, 2010, saw the remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine track directly across our area, dumping more than 10 inches of rain in a short period of time. We began making evacuations of low-lying areas near Nolan Creek around midnight, along with some rescues of our citizens who couldn’t make it out due to high water.

At 0310 hours, with driving rain, high winds, lightning, thunder and the worst conditions imaginable, we received a mutual-aid call to send our swiftwater team to Nolanville, which borders us on the east, to rescue victims who were trapped in a mobile-home park by the raging Nolan Creek.

Four of our personnel on that team, David Ayers, Martin Mercado, Walter Elvidge and Matt Truitt, personally rescued 26 people from the park, using our boat and lines stretched across the current. No lives were lost!

These men were recognized by the department with a plaque of appreciation for their actions. I considered nominating them for the prestigious Ben Franklin Award for Valor, but they asked me not to because they didn’t think they deserved special recognition—doesn’t that sound typical?

Heros are made in a lot of ways, but training is often the unsung element. Proper training—grafted into department culture and embraced by the personnel—is an important part in life-saving operations, but it’s also the essential element in making sure responders come home and can continue to be heroes every day.  

We never know when the training we receive will be put to the test under extreme conditions. Are you ready?

Jack V. Collier, AS, BS, LP is the chief of Harker Heights (Tex.) Fire & Rescue.

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