Training comes to rescue crews

By HEATHER CIVIL Daily News Staff Writer

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Firefighters and deputies from three counties took to the water Thursday as part of a water rescue training exercise at Dune Allen Beach.

All day long, the men and one woman practiced making rescues using personal watercraft.

As they sped along the waves and their craft bobbed up and down, the trainees reached into the water and pulled out floats with one hand.

The exercise taught the trainees how to maintain control while pulling someone or something from the water.

It was part of a weeklong class taught by Wesley Meyer, a certified rescue trainer from Texas.

"If they can stay on the boats and have total control and be confident all the time, they’re not going to be worried," Meyer said. That helps them focus on the rescue, he added.

After they mastered the floats, class members took turns volunteering as victims to be pulled from the water or transported on a sled attached to the back of the personal watercraft.

The 45-member class was made up of representatives from the South Walton Fire District, Panama City Beach Fire Rescue and the Okaloosa and Walton County sheriff ’s offices.

Chief John Fitch of the South Walton Fire District organized the class and hired Meyer to teach it.

The fire district paid about $100 per member for its 28 participants in the class, Fitch said.

Fitch himself took part in the training and said that learning to handle a water rescue using a personal watercraft can help his firefighters save lives by being more efficient in an emergency.

"We definitely needed it for our own people and their safety," Fitch said.

The fire district has eight personal watercraft at its disposal. All but one of those were purchased or donated to the department this year, Fitch said. The Walton County Sheriff ’s Office has two watercraft and now also has a rescue boat.

Meyer, a retired firefighter, has spent years specializing in all types of rescue training, including water rescues.

He said personal watercraft are valuable tools because they can maneuver in tight spaces and are easy to handle.

What’s important, Meyer said, is that the rescuers learn more than one way to handle a situation and that they are prepared for the unexpected.

"(They’re) learning several techniques," Meyer said.