In the tense moments when a boat and passengers are in peril near one of the locks and dams on the Mississippi River, Joel Hermann wants first responders to remain calm, make smart decisions, and control the situation.

To make that scenario more likely, he organized the first interagency water safety training at Lock and Dam 4 near Alma, Wis., on July 16-17.

Water Rescue Training

“I don’t want the first time we need the sheriff’s department or the fire department to operate around a dam to be a time of desperation,” said Hermann, operator at Lock and Dam 4. “When we perform these rescues, there is a lot of panic involved. I want them to be in a safe training environment, so that they know what to expect. We are trying to set them up for success.”

Hermann was pleased with the turnout at this initial training session. Thirty-five individuals representing 8 agencies including fire departments, sheriff’s departments, Wisconsin DNR, Minnesota DNR, and others attended.

“I have a background in the military, and my attitude towards training is that I take it very seriously,” Hermann said. “Rarely do people rise to the occasion. They more often fall to their training, so we need to be prepared.”

On-the-water training

Following an orientation session, Hermann took first responders onto the dam to show them how long it takes to seal the gates. He noted that a disabled boat passing the buoys marking restricted water above the dam would float into the dam gates in two minutes. He added that it takes longer than that for a staff member to leave the office and operate the gates to close them.

Participants then had the opportunity to practice boat rescues at the dam gates. Hermann took his Corps of Engineers boat to a point just a few feet above the Gate 1, and those attending the training took turns backing their boats down to the “disabled” boat, attaching a tow rope, and pulling the boat to safety.

Crews repeated the process several times so that each person in the boat had the chance to practice driving the boat, attaching the rope to the “disabled” boat, and securing the rope to the rescue boat.

Eight agencies including fire departments, sheriff's departments, Minnesota DNR, and Wisconsin DNR sent representatives to the water rescue training at Lock and Dam 4 on July 17, 2019. Steve Gardiner / Rivertown Multimedia
Eight agencies including fire departments, sheriff's departments, Minnesota DNR, and Wisconsin DNR sent representatives to the water rescue training at Lock and Dam 4 on July 17, 2019. Steve Gardiner / Rivertown Multimedia

Even though the training involved performing boat rescues, Hermann said that getting in a boat and going after people in trouble is the final stage in a series of options available to first responders and lock and dam staff.

“Talk, reach, throw, and go,” Hermann said. “That how we think about this. First thing to ask is do you even need to get into the boat? If we can reach them with a pole or throw them a line, that is better. The best is to do this without a boat. It is quicker and safer.”

Hermann noted that one problem is that many times there are two people on staff at a lock and dam. By rule, one person must remain in the building. That means that if one person goes out in a boat for a rescue, that person much drive the boat, attach the tow rope, or remove the people from the disabled boat alone. That can be a challenge for even experienced personnel.

Disabled Boat Training

On the same page

The training gave agencies the chance to talk about equipment and techniques for dam rescues. It also let them try handling their boats in the currents and structures around the dam.

“This is something I have wanted to do since I started here six years ago,” Hermann said. “We need to coordinate with the various rescue services, so we can all get on the same page, so they know our capabilities in terms of water rescue, and we know theirs.”

Understanding equipment and rescue methods, in addition to working well with other agencies, is important because no one wants a rescue operation to create more problems.

“The last thing we want to do is add to the number of victims that need to be rescued,” Hermann said. “This is the first time we’ve run this class. This type of training needs to happen at locks and dams all up and down the river.”