BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
On the brink of the spring/summer boating season, the Vermilion County Sheriff’s Department was preparing for water emergencies this week.
Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of boating season locally, boosting the number of people not only on Lake Vermilion but also the North Fork, Middle Fork and the Vermilion rivers.
On Monday, around 10 members of the Vermilion County Sheriff’s Department were on the North Fork River at Ellsworth Park, preparing for emergency calls on the water.
Sheriff’s Department Capt. Dennis Wood was out watching the practice drills, which extended across from the north to the south banks of the North Fork River. He said the department has deputies trained as divers when a vehicle or victim is submerged.
“But what we’re practicing today is when we get surface calls — stranded boaters, swimmers in trouble, canoeists in trouble,” he said.
“There are several different types of maneuvers with ropes so they can navigate the river and safely search an area on the surface,” Wood said.
In Monday’s exercises, the team extended a main static line between two trees on either side of the North Fork. One of the officers taking part in the drill, Sgt. Dave Trimmell said pulleys are incorporated to eliminate any play in the static line.
“We tighten the static line with a Z-drag system, which is a system of ropes and pulleys that we put together right her on the shore,” he said. “It makes it as strong as can be — you could probably pull down a tree with that system.
“You have absolutely no play in the static line whatsoever,” he added.
Using the line, officers then ferry a small jon boat out with ropes and pulleys and put it in place for a rescue scenario.
Trimmell said the rope system is necessary, especially in swift water conditions that would make it impossible to simply let the boat drift back into position for a rescue.
The sheriff’s department group ran through the process several times on land before practicing the process many more times on water. They switched stations so each man could learn various angles of the rescue procedure.
The sheriff’s department, in cooperation with the Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency, has as many as five boats it can put in the water, ranging from a small orange kayak that fits in the back of a truck to a large Zodiac boat that can hold as many as 12 people.
“We have in the past had calls for someone who gets out on this water when it’s swift and they under-judge their ability and get into trouble,” Wood said.
He added that water rescues are not as simple as throwing someone a rope and pulling them in.
“We had an incident many, many years ago in our county where someone used a rope and stretched it across the water and the stranded canoeists grabbed the rope and it plucked them right out of the boat and threw them in the water,” he said. “So you need to know what you’re doing.
Wood said the sheriff’s department sends deputies to a week-long water rescue school in Indiana to receive the appropriate training for such situations.
He noted this week’s practice runs had nothing to do with the spring’s heavy rains that have led to all three river’s overflowing as well as the shut down of the Middle Fork River for parts of last month.
“The sheriff’s department had spent a great deal of time, effort and funds to train these people,” Wood said. “We like to get them out to practice their skill.”