San Francisco Fire Department Performs Dramatic Surf Rescue

Norm Rooker reports on an intense surf rescue operation that led four SFFD members to receive top awards from the Firehouse Heroism & Community Service Awards program.


On Feb. 18, 2004, three Canadian men sailed a 30-foot sailboat up the California coast and directly into a confluence of factors, forces and errors that culminated in their craft being broached, capsized and ultimately destroyed off of San Francisco's Ocean Beach. The San Francisco Fire...


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Rescue Captain 2 Tim Fewell was at Station 18 administering a drill to the crew of Medic 18, Firefighter/Paramedic Jon Baxter and Firefighter/EMT Laverne Maliga, when the call was dispatched. Fewell hopped in his vehicle and followed the medics.

Station 18's surf rescue protocol is to put the engine out of service, and the designated rescue swimmers on the engine and truck change into wet suits and respond to the scene in the surf rescue vehicle and Truck 18. The truck serves as an aerial platform for spotting victims and tracking swimmers in the water as well as to provide extra equipment such as generators and lights. With this protocol in mind, Truck 18's boss, Lieutenant Glen Kojimoto, immediately contacted radio and had them add Truck 18 to the call. Firefighter/Paramedic Beth Goudreau and Firefighter/EMTs Elizabeth Leahy and Jason Woo changed into wet suits.

Engine 18 Captain Ed Liggins drove his rescue swimmers to the scene. Kojimoto, also a surf rescue-qualified swimmer, and Firefighter/EMT Mami Suzaki-Vidlon responded to the scene in Truck 18.

As the drama continued to unfold, Van Waart was directing his dispatching team to notify the U.S. Coast Guard Group San Francisco of the incident and request both the boat station and the air station send assets. After sending out an unusual occurrence page to notify SFFD chief officers and administration of the event, he contacted Paramedic Captain Pete Howes, the department's public information officer, to give him an update and get him responding to the scene. As per protocol, the National Park Service was also notified of the unfolding rescue as it was taking place on its property.

Medic 18, the first unit to arrive on scene, found 15 to 20 people frantically waving the responders over to the south end of the parking lot. "I jumped out the ambulance and commandeered a pair of binoculars from a bystander," Baxter said. "There were very heavy surf conditions and approximately 100-plus yards out I spotted a lot of debris and two of the three victims."

Baxter gave a quick size-up on the dispatch channel and repeated it on the tactical channel before returning the binoculars and stepping into the back of the ambulance to change into a wet suit. Fewell arrived on scene and was waved down to the beach by numerous frantic bystanders.

"I saw a number of people in the water up to their knees pulling debris out," Fewell said. "One lady had a yellow horseshoe-type flotation device around her waist. I ran up to her, thinking she might be one of the victims, but she told me she had fished it out of the water and was holding it for the authorities. I spotted all three people in the water and noted they were about 100 yards south of the parking lot, so I gave an updated location to radio so Truck 19 could position itself properly on the Great Highway to set up its aerial for observation...

"One of the first things I noted was that there wasn't a single surfer out there. This is a professional surfers' spot and they hold competitions out here every couple of years. But that day's conditions were so bad, nobody was out there"

At the same time, klaxons were sounding at the Coast Guard Air Station at San Francisco Airport. Lieutenant Commander Tammy Koermer was the pilot for the air station's ready aircraft. "I was at my desk when the alert came in," Koermer said. "Initially, we got a report for a sinking boat off of Ocean Beach with multiple people in the water. I had our flight mechanics dump about a half-hour's worth of fuel.

"In a helicopter you always have a tradeoff on how much you can lift. The less weight you have in fuel load, the more people you can haul out of the water. The response location was only 10 minutes' flying time from our station. However, less fuel also translates to less time you can stay on station once you get there."

Farther north, at Coast Guard Station Golden Gate, located in Horseshoe Cove at the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, the same alert was being sounded. Both 47-foot motor lifeboats were manned and responding within five minutes of the initial alert. The surf rescue unit and Truck 18 arrived on scene to discover Battalion Chief 8 Ron Trainor, Truck 19 and Engine 34 with the cliff rescue unit were already on scene. Unfortunately, none of these units had rescue swimmers on that day. There was no direct access from the parking lot down to the beach. The rescuers had to either scramble over boulders or take a narrow and circuitous path down to the beach.