Eight months after they rode to his rescue, fire chief Steve Camlin is still singing the praises of a group of fellow firefighters from Illinois who showed up when help was needed most for his North Carolina community.
“Soon as they hit the ground, they started working nonstop,” Camlin recalls. “They just told us to sit back and chill out---they got it!”
Camlin is chief of North Carolina's Acme-Delco-Riegelwood Fire District, which was devastated last September by the intense flooding of Hurricane Florence.
“Florence was probably the worst hurricane we’ve ever been through,” he said. “We were lucky to get an hour’s sleep---most of the time we were too tired to eat…we lived off coffee!”
It was about that time that the cavalry arrived in the form of Illinois Task Force One, a multi-department unit which specializes in swift water rescue. And they immediately went to work.
“The guys ended up performing 18 different rescues,” recalls Chuck Gros, the water component leader and squad officer for Task Force One. “Five of those were true, 100% life saves, where if the guys weren’t there, those individuals wouldn’t be here right now!”
On a recent cold and rainy day on the Fox River, members of Task Force One demonstrated the skills they put to good use in Florence’s rising waters. In the unit’s trademark red dry-suit and black helmet, Gros said it’s important to read the river, and remember that victims are rarely able to help with their own rescue.
“The one thing they are going to do is, they want out,” Gros said. “In swift water, they lose their body temperature 200 times faster than that person on the shore.”
That means the ability to hold onto a rope might be the first to go.
“When you become hypothermic, you lose the dexterity in your fingers, you lose the ability to talk, you lose the ability to use your arms,” he said. “So we have to go out there and get them.”
The Illinois team trains constantly in how best to pluck a human being from a fast-moving stream--- be it from a boat, a tethered rope, even a zip-line strung from shore to shore.
“Second nature,” Gros said. “It’s easy because you train----it’s easy because you know what you’re doing.”
That said, members of the unit say every emergency writes its own rules. TF-1 member Andy Hoff, of the Downer’s Grove fire department, notes that swift water rescue is a high-risk, low-frequency event.
Thus---the constant practice.
“Most of the time you just have to think on your feet,” he said. “And come up with a plan---and let it work!”
Gros noted his team did plenty of work on dry land as well, helping to deliver food and water to Florence’s victims.
“The whole area was completely flooded, totally overwhelmed,” he said. “They couldn’t get water, they couldn’t get food, they couldn’t get fuel for their generators.”
It was one more reason Camlin picked up his phone and called NBC5, to tell us we had a great team of rescuers in our own back yard who deserved a story.
“This whole community was blessed to have those guys come down,” he said. “If the task force people wouldn’t have been here, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we were doing.”