Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Pat on the Back. . .to County’s Swiftwater Rescue Teams

Spring is near and along with it comes the spring storms that are so common in Oklahoma. And along with the storms comes flooding.

Along with the flooding arrives the need to rescue those unlucky souls caught on flooding streams and rivers. The need is great. Sequoyah County has the usually lazy and lovely Illinois River near its center, the mighty Arkansas River on the west and south, Lee Creek in the east.

Sequoyah County Sheriff Ron Lockhart and Steve Rutherford, the county’s emergency management director, recognized there was a need in the county for swiftwater rescue. A swiftwater rescue plan was developed in 2010, and volunteer firefighters were encouraged to join up.

The swiftwater rescue teams, based at the county’s volunteer fire departments, now have 50 members from all over the county. They operate in their own areas and assist where needed. Lockhart and Rutherford have seen to it that team members are specially trained and have the necessary equipment. They have dive training and are outfitted with dive equipment.

“We got Hummers for them. One is stationed in the east end, one is in the west end and one is centrally located,” Lockhart said.

Lockhart also saw that all were equipped with boats for rescues. The sheriff’s office has two boats, emergency management has its own boat, and the Muldrow and Vian Fire Departments and Rural Fire Protection District at Carlisle each have a boat. The most recent acquisition is the Zodiac, above. This rubber raft is like those used by the U.S. Navy Seals, and will be standing by for rescues on the Illinois River, powered by a new motor purchased in part with a $1,000 grant from Walmart.

Lockhart recalled the swiftwater rescue teams were organized after the sheriff’s department was called upon to do so many such rescues it was obvious that training and equipment were needed full time.

“We gathered a team, trained for a year and got a grant,” Lockhart said. The grant was used for gear. No county money was used to outfit the teams, Lockhart said. The gear and equipment came from surplus and military wares.

And it’s a good thing the county has the rescue teams, gear and equipment.

The spring of 2015 was doused with downpours, causing flooding across the county.

Rutherford said at least 32 had to be rescued in May and June during the flooding. The rescues were mostly on the Illinois River Rutherford said. Other rescues were conducted on Lee Creek in Arkansas, and once in LeFlore County and once in Muskogee County.

The teams have no county-line limits, Rutherford said. They go where they are needed.

The needs are not just in the spring. Rutherford said two duck hunters had to be rescued just over a month ago, south of Vian.

Rutherford said, “It’s the volunteers at the fire departments. Without them this service would not be a success. They are often underestimated because they are so responsive. Several have won life-saving awards.”

Lockhart said his office helps the teams out financially.

“We seek out funds and grants to help them,” Lockhart said. “We do everything we can. Any type of rescue team is needed in Oklahoma. It takes the eyes and ears of all the citizens to help us.”

Rutherford concluded, “A lot of counties don’t have these rescue teams. LeFlore County is training one right now. It’s a blessing we have one.”

Sally Maxwell, Senior News Director

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