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Rescue on The Water

Issue 8 and Volume 12.

By Gary Baker and Adam J. Hansen

On July 25, 2016, at approximately 1308 hours, the Milford (CT) Fire Department Emergency Operations Center (EOC) received a report of multiple people in distress between the area of Charles Island and Silver Sands State Beach. On obtaining additional information from the EOC and from the initial size-up of the first-arriving marine unit, members found themselves faced with an imminent life safety situation of eight children and two adults treading water up to their necks. Most of the victims were nearing the point of exhaustion and in need of immediate rescue.

Milford’s Coastline

The city of Milford, Connecticut, is small and sits between the two bigger cities of New Haven and Bridgeport. Records obtained from the 2010 census show Milford’s population just under 53,000 people. Of the many target hazards that lie within the city (e.g., a power plant, Iroquois Gas Company, Schick Manufacturing, Bic Corporation, I-95, and a hospital), nothing proves to be more hazardous than Long Island Sound. Milford has the longest coastline of all towns and cities across Connecticut, with 19.5 miles including Long Island Sound, the Housatonic River, and Milford Harbor.

Charles Island

Charles Island is a 14-acre uninhabited island that sits about a half mile off the coast of Silver Sands State Beach. Throughout history, the island has had many different uses. Today, the State of Connecticut owns the island, and it is designated as a “natural area preserve” for birds. At high tide, Charles Island contributes to the overall experience by adding to the view of Long Island Sound. It’s not until low tide comes around that this natural beauty transforms into a significant life hazard.

When the tide is low, a large tombolo (sandbar) emerges out of the water. The sandbar appears to be quite wide and firm, giving visitors a false sense of security. As one ventures out to the island, the sturdy sandbar significantly narrows, and its consistency changes quickly from one of compacted sand to slippery wet rocks. As the tide comes in and begins to cover the sandbar, a powerful and dangerous current passes over it. There is a tide swing of seven to seven and a half feet, which creates a rip current over the sandbar. The current can be in excess of three knots and runs perpendicular to the sandbar. An adult can be swept off the sandbar with as little as two feet of water covering the sandbar, and a child even less.

With only about two hours before it begins to flood, the sandbar continuously causes many unsuspecting visitors to become victims in need of rescue in the blink of an eye. There are signs posted on the beach stating “DANGER! Sandbar Floods Twice Daily With Strong Currents And Undertow.” In the past year and a half, the Milford Fire Department responded to 66 water-related emergencies. Of the 66 incidents, 42 of them were either on or near Charles Island and Silver Sands State Park. Despite the tremendous efforts by our department, unfortunately not all those incidents have had positive outcomes. There have been at least five drownings and several boat fires in that area over the past several years.

The Call

July 25, 2016, proved to be a typical New England summer day. It was bright and sunny with winds of five to 10 mph. The water temperature was in the low 70s. Low tide was set for 1000 hours, and high tide was set for 1300 hours.

The Milford Fire Department trains twice daily Monday through Friday. The first training block of the day is from 1000 to 1200 hours, and the second is from 1300 to 1500 hours. The type of training in these time blocks is set by the training division or the line officers, giving them a chance to work on the things they feel would be advantageous to their companies.

Coincidently, the morning session on the training schedule happened to be departmentwide training on Marine #2 operations. In the morning, Marine #2 was towed down to the municipal boat ramp, which is just across the street from fire headquarters. Most of the time, with Marine #2 being stationed at headquarters, either Engine #1 or Tower #1 is dispatched to respond with Marine #2. However, when a full marine response is dispatched, it is not uncommon for both Engine #1 and Tower #1 to already be on calls or for a qualified coxswain to be working one of those units, therefore being assigned to Marine #1. With all companies able to be called on to respond, it is paramount that every member get out on the water and operate the vessel several times throughout the year.

The morning training block was dedicated for all companies – four engines, two quints, one tower ladder, two medic units, and one battalion chief – to rotate down to the boat ramp and reacquaint themselves with the vessel. The training consisted of checking the vessel, backing the trailer down the ramp, launching, going underway, operating on Long Island Sound, loading back onto the trailer, and cleaning/maintenance when completed. Marine #2 was the only marine unit being reviewed and operated that morning; however, the training would get all members in a state of readiness. It would prove to be invaluable only a few hours later when all three units of the Marine Division would be called on and used.

A group of visitors from Glastonbury, Connecticut, had made their way down to Milford and were visiting Silver Sands State Beach for the day. Sometime between low tide and high tide, 1000 to 1300 hours, the group decided to venture out onto the sandbar and make their way out to Charles Island. It is unclear whether the group saw the warning signs posted; these signs are extremely visible and placed in locations in front of the sandbar.

After making their way out to the island and exploring it for some time, the group noticed the tide was starting to come in. It cannot be overstated that when the tide starts to come in, conditions are extremely hard to judge. What appears to be easily navigable terrain is in fact treacherous. The group misjudged the tide and dangers and began to make their way back to shore. While making their way back to shore via the sandbar, the group quickly became overcome by the strong current, which pushed them off the sandbar. The ages of the eight children ranged from seven to 17. With size often being a contributing factor, the younger/smaller children were quickly overcome, leaving the older/larger ones in the group keeping the younger ones afloat and from drifting into the Sound. Because of state budget cuts, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has reduced its budget and does not have lifeguards on duty at Silver Sands on Mondays and Tuesdays.

In the middle of this unfolding emergency situation, another patron on shore was able to see the group was in distress. At approximately 1308 hours, the Milford Fire Department EOC received a 911 call from a cellphone stating there were multiple people stranded on the sandbar. The caller stated it appeared they all had water up to their necks and were struggling to stay afloat. The EOC, using its newly added Locution (automated alerting system), immediately transmitted the alarm.

The Response

A full Marine response was dispatched, including the following:

  • Quint #5, having a coxswain on duty, responded from the East Side Fire Station to Marine #1 docked at Port Milford.
  • Engine #1 responded from headquarters and drove Marine #2, with the F-350 trailer, across the street to the boat ramp.
  • Engine #4 responded from the West Side Fire Station to Marine #3, a jet ski housed in a shipping container on Walnut Beach.
  • Car #4/battalion chief responded to Silver Sands State Park.
  • Quint #3 responded to Silver Sands State Park.

With under a three-minute response time to the beach, Engine #4 was able to get Marine #3, the jet ski, underway quickly. Besides the tower ladder and medic units, the Milford Fire Department staffs all apparatus with three firefighters. It is policy, when Marine #3 is called, that two firefighters must be onboard at all times. While Engine #4’s lieutenant and rider donned all appropriate personal protective equipment, personal flotation devices and helmets, the chauffeur accessed the jet ski in the shipping container. The chauffeur drove the utility vehicle with trailer attached over the boardwalk and onto the beach, backing the trailer into the water, disconnecting, and preparing the jet ski for response. Engine #4’s lieutenant and rider attached a rescue sled onto the back, immediately boarded, and were underway within a matter of minutes. Marine #3 personnel were able to see the people in distress from shore.

Car #4/battalion chief arrived at Silver Sands State Park and immediately took command of the incident. Whenever a marine response is dispatched, at least one company is sent to a shore-based location. These locations have been selected through experience and knowing the layout of the coastline. These companies act as “spotters” where they try to get a visual on the boat or person in distress and guide marine units that are responding. Silver Sands Beach is almost always the command post and spotting location for calls involving the sandbar of Charles Island.

Quint #3 also arrived at Silver Sands. Quint #3 assisted incident command with spotting and prepared an extraction point on the beach for the victims after rescue. Quint #3 members donned exposure suits as they knew they would be needed to assist the victims from the water when brought to shore. Marine #1 and Marine #2 went underway from their respective points.

Marine #3 was the first unit to arrive at the scene. As they approached the sandbar, they sized up the situation and found multiple people at various depths, some waist deep and others chin deep in water. Marine #3 personnel knew they were dealing with a mass-casualty incident. Being limited to the number of victims they could transport, they needed to triage who was in the greatest danger and in immediate need of rescue. Although the first two victims they came on had water up to their stomachs and were starting to struggle, Marine #3 personnel knew there were others in more immediate need of rescue. As they continued, they came on a woman with water up to her chest attempting to hold two children above water, one child on each side of her. The jet ski pulled up next to the woman and the lieutenant grabbed the two children and was able to fit them on the seat of the jet ski. After relieving her of the two children, the woman appeared not to be in immediate need of rescue. They told her that others needed to be rescued first, and they would come back for her. After loading up the two children, Marine #3 saw two other children with water up to their necks also in immediate need of rescue. The lieutenant grabbed the two children, loaded them onto the rescue sled, and laid on top, holding them down securely. Marine #3 was able to make it to shore with all four children, where Quint #3 waited. The transfer was made, and Quint #3 removed all four children from the water to the extraction point. After the transfer was made, Marine #3 immediately responded back out to rescue the remaining victims.

On returning out to the sandbar, it was at this time that Marine #1 and Marine #2 were both arriving on the scene. At this point, the mother who had been holding the two children up out of the water was now in significant distress. She was unable to touch the bottom and was being swept off the sandbar by the rip current. Marine #3 quickly rescued the now exhausted woman and brought her to shore. Conditions on the sandbar were changing rapidly. The four children who appeared to be relatively safe earlier in the incident were now starting to tire and were being pushed off the sandbar. Marine #2 was able to navigate close enough to the sandbar and pick up the remaining four children and one adult before they were swept away. The two people Marine #3 had initially seen with water up to their stomachs were able to make their way back to shore without department assistance. Marine #1, the biggest of all the units, was not able to get close enough to the sandbar for rescue but did play a vital role in the overall operation. It assisted with spotting, communications, and other ancillary support functions.

All victims were brought to shore and checked for injuries. Amazingly, not one of the 10 victims was injured during this incident, and none were transported to the hospital. Quint #3 and Car #4/incident command stayed with the group for some time to comfort them and ensure they did not need any further assistance. The incident was recalled, and all marine units were fueled, flushed, washed, and placed back into service.

Continued Vigilance

The summer months prove to be an extremely busy time for the Milford Fire Department’s Marine Division. It’s not uncommon for the department to respond to several emergencies per week, if not more. Charles Island and the sandbar have always been and will continue to be an ultra-hazardous part of Long Island Sound that many times turns unsuspecting visitors into victims. It’s because of the Milford Fire Department’s continued commitment to training, awareness, and providing the best possible service that this rescue (the largest in the department’s history) was successful.

Special thanks to Battalion Chief Robert Turner of Car 4/Command, Captain Nick Holinko of Engine #1/Marine #2, Lieutenant Pete Phelen, and Firefighter Marc Labreque of Engine #4/Marine #3 for contributing their firsthand account of the incident.

Gary Baker is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief with the Milford (CT) Fire Department. Prior to joining Milford, he served in the United States Navy as an aviation electronics technician. Baker is a United States Coast Guard licensed captain holding a master of 100-ton license with a commercial towing endorsement. He is a state certified fire marshal, fire investigator EMT, haz-mat technician fire service instructor 1, fire officer 1, incident safety officer, pump operator, and National Association of State Boating Law Administrators certified boat operator.

Adam J. Hansen is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Milford (CT) Fire Department, assigned to Engine Company #7. He began his career as a volunteer in his hometown of Branford, Connecticut, in 1999 and was hired with Milford in 2006. Hansen is a nationally registered paramedic and is state certified fire instructor 1, fire officer 1, incident safety officer, pump ops, aerial ops, and technical rescue: trench. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science (fire administration) with a minor in criminal justice from the University of New Haven.