CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The night of June 23, 2016, was unforgettable in West Virginia. Working in the dark and overwhelmed, swift water rescue teams of the Clendenin and Glasgow Volunteer Fire Departments were stretched to the max.
There were more emergencies amid the rising flood water than they has personnel to respond. That night, members of the West Virginia National Guard were pressed into swift water rescue duty, something none of them were trained for.
“We did not have swift water capabilities,” said Major Wally Hatfield. “We were drawing up plans in the mud on the riverbank in the dark to determine what we were going to do.”
The teams are credited with saving hundreds of lives that night–but nearly two dozen West Virginians could not be saved and that continues to weight heavy on first responders.
The after-action report following the flood noted the lack of any swift water rescue capability by the guard. West Virginia Adjutant General James Hoyer created a 16 member guard team with four boats fully outfitted and trained. The unit will be paired with members of the Glasgow and Clendenin Volunteer Fire Departments for future emergencies.
“It’s a specialty rescue team that focuses on flood water, or high water and swift water rescue,” said Kevin Clendenin, Chief of the Clendenin Volunteer Fire Department. “Not every fire department in the state or even in the county has this capability.”
The West Virginia National Guard members and the Volunteer Fire Department team will act as one. They will train together and respond together. The combined team will ultimately have about 50 members. Unit cohesion is of high importance for Hatfield.
“Guard guys will be mixed in with guys from the fire department so we truly are working together prior to an event happening,” Hatfield explained. “So when that event happens, we all know each other, we’re all trained together and we know each others equipment.”
The agreement also includes a memorandum of understanding which will clear the way for the civilian members of the fire department to climb aboard guard helicopters to transport equipment and personnel rapidly to an emergency.
“With the guard going in with us, we just have so much more equipment and expertise and logistics to offer,” said Clendenin. “We think it will be a win-win for everybody involved if this ever happens again.”
The team recently completed the final phase of the training necessary to reach a Level 2 certification from FEMA for swift-water rescue. The last phase dealt with large animal rescue. The designation makes the team available for work not only here in WEst Virginia, but they can respond to any swift-water disaster in the country.
“We saw this in Texas and Florida when the last hurricanes moved through,” said Hatfield. “That designation shows we are trained and self-sustainable to move into other locations outside the state to operate.”
While they hope they are never needed, both Clendenin and Hatfield believe the new team and the designation from FEMA will help reduce the death toll if an event like the 2016 flood ever hits the state again.