De Pere Fire Department trains for water rescues, worried about high water and coronavirus

Published: Jul. 14, 2020 at 5:55 PM CDT
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DE PERE, Wis. (WBAY) - Record high water levels, along with the pandemic, prompted the De Pere Fire Department to begin water rescue training Tuesday. Heavy rain in the forecast only adds to concerns about the potential for water rescues.

The waters near Voyageur Park and its popular fishing piers have welcomed a steady stream of people this year, even as sidewalks are swallowed up by rising water along the Fox River in De Pere.

“I think people are looking at more avenues to get out and do things. Their normal routine has been interrupted,” Eric Johnson, De Pere Fire/Rescue’s assistant chief of training and safety, said. “You see more boats, more kayaks, more fishermen, just more activity on the river this year more than ever.”

Which means a higher chance firefighters will be called to rescue someone in the water.

“It’s considered a low frequency but very high risk,” Johnson said. “It’s been on our minds ever since the spring thaw.”

That’s what’s prompting the water rescue training, starting Tuesday afternoon, for the entire fire department.

“That’s the goal behind this training, that we’re going to have all our staff trained alike so it’s a very rapid response for our organization to get out in the water as quick as possible.”

They’re practicing to get to someone in distress faster and more efficiently and, when they do, know the best way to safely pull them into their rescue boat.

“The water here in the Great Lakes and the Fox River is already at an all time high, so any increased level of that water is going to make it that much more dangerous for anybody who’s playing, working around the water -- and more dangerous for us if we have to go in the water to rescue somebody who’s in distress.”

Johnson says De Pere Fire/Rescue assists other agencies with rescue missions, making them responsible for about 10 miles of the Fox River.

They’ve responded to eight rescues in the last two years. The state Department of Natural Resources reports 10 people died after falling overboard during that time period across the state.

“The moving water is extremely powerful. It can be pretty benign and in an instant, if somebody falls overboard in the water, if they don’t have a flotation device on, that water can pull them under.”

They hope never to need this training but feel more confident they’ll have a rapid response if they do.

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