By Carl Haddon
Not a week goes by that I don’t hear conversation wherein rural fire department members discount the possibility of “things going that bad.” “That’ll never happen to us,” “we’ve always done it that way,” and “that only happens to city departments, and we’re not a city department,” seem to be mantras and mentalities that often ring throughout many parts of this country’s rural fire communities. The thought of multiple incidents occurring at the same time or a single event, such as a school bus crash, that would overtax the existing resources don’t seem to be given much thought. And, the suggestion of such events is often dismissed as being alarmist.
Elk Bend, Idaho is a small, primarily retirement community with a population of less than 200 people, located in a pristine remote area on the banks of the Salmon River. The Elk Bend Fire Protection District has a hard working volunteer chief, and a great (but small) group of older volunteer firefighters. Elk Bend has no ambulance but does have another small group of first responders and EMTs that make up its quick response unit (QRU). Elk Bend’s closest ambulance and all other emergency services resources come from a town located roughly 25 miles away.
In the late afternoon on June 16, 2013, Elk Bend QRU, and our swiftwater rescue team (North Fork (ID) Fire Department) were dispatched to a call in Elk Bend for “ATV over the side and into the river.” As units mustered and headed upriver, an Elk Bend Fire Protection District engine with two souls aboard was traveling along the river road, when they were apparently startled by a deer that appeared from the brush and onto the highway. The apparatus operator is said to have swerved to avoid the animal, causing the loaded engine to leave the pavement. The fire truck rolled onto its side and headed down the 25-foot embankment toward the Salmon River. When the truck hit the riverbank, it popped back onto all four wheels, causing the engine to come to rest upright in the water.
The Elk Bend QRU and our water rescue task force were already committed to the search and rescue efforts of the ATV with assumed riders in the river. Existing resources were tapped, and we potentially had fellow firefighters, who are also friends and neighbors, trapped, injured, or worse in a wrecked apparatus in the cold fast moving river waters.
Not only did the “that’ll never happen to us” theory get blown out the window, it called into question the effectiveness of the crews on the first scene knowing that the next closest help for those firefighters onboard the engine in the river was at least 30 minutes away.
I’m not going to tell you that anything could have happened differently than it did, because I don’t know that. And Elk Bend Fire is not one of those departments that I’ve heard the “that will never happen to us” from. I’m also not saying that something, be it preplanning, training, or coordinating resources, couldn’t have been done to help avoid a situation such as this. Each department/district has its own unique set of circumstances.
In the end, we were all quite relieved to hear that the crew in the apparatus wreck was all able to self-extricate, and the two crew members were transported via ambulance to the hospital with non life threatening injuries. The original call of the ATV over the side and into the river turned out to be a visitor to the area with a truck and ATV trailer that lost one of the ATVs off of the trailer over the side and into the river—no rider and no rescue.
The old adage is, “Hope for the best and plan for the worst.” In our case, we tweak the adage to, “Hope for the best, and preplan, and train, train, train for the worst.” Remember, “that’ll never happen to us” holds true right up to the day that it does happen to you.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He serves as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.
By Carl Haddon