Signs of the first El Niño-fueled storms of the winter still were vivid last Friday when two-dozen-plus firefighters gathered in Anaheim for training.
On that clear morning, fresh snow on the San Gabriel Mountains sparkled from afar in the brilliant sunshine.
And large puddles dotted the bed of the Santa Ana River, where homeless encampments that just days before were in the channel now were on higher ground, safe from the recent floodwaters — and those to come.
And they will come, according to forecasts that prompted a series of recent swift-water awareness training classes for firefighters from Anaheim Fire & Rescue, Orange City Fire and the Garden Grove Fire Department.
Periodically, firefighters undergo special training for pressing needs; say, for active-shooter incidents, wildland fires and various urban search and rescue scenarios.
The brush-up water rescue course Jan. 8 — the last of eight — couldn’t have been better timed, with three water rescues in O.C. during the week preceding Friday’s session, and the training coming two days after the last of three storms dumped between 3 to 5 inches of rain locally. The training also was timely following four years of drought.
After a one-hour slideshow presentation, attendees conducted a training drill near where the 57 Freeway crosses the Santa Ana River, with several rigs rolling to positions on the Orangewood Avenue and Chapman Avenue bridges.
The scenario: A man had fallen into the Santa Ana River.
The water was 5 feet deep and moving fast.
Engine 6 of Anaheim Fire & Rescue served as incident command, which ordered all the resources into position.
Two Anaheim crews tossed inflatable hoses off the Orangewood Avenue bridge for the imaginary victim to try to grab onto.
Two Orange Fire crews, from positions along the riverbank, practiced tossing throw bags.
A Garden Grove Fire crew stationed at the next bridge, at Chapman Avenue, rescued the imaginary victim.
If the incident had been real, traffic closures would have been deployed.
During the drill, cars snaked past as many motorists appeared to be looking to see what supposed real-life emergency was occurring.
A larger swift-water rescue drill, at various spots along the river from Lakeview Avenue in Anaheim down to the beach and with more participating agencies, is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 13.
Firefighters who participated in the Jan. 8 training said it was valuable.
“It’s very important that with all the training we do to revisit it from time to time and get our hands on the equipment and practice the different exercises,” said Todd Needle, a captain with Anaheim Fire & Rescue’s Station 8.
“Swift-water rescue training is especially important this year,” Needle added. “The Santa Ana River runs right through our city and all the other cities downstream from us, so we’re going to be right in the middle of things if there winds up being a rescue attempt.”
Swift-water rescues are a low-frequency event but require knowledge about such things as the science of flowing water, proper gear and clothing, and skills such as tossing a throw bag to a person in danger of drowning.
Although Friday’s training was for all firefighters, not all are certified to enter waters to try and save someone. Many, however, are trained in shore-based rescue techniques, such as dropping inflated hoses into moving water in the hopes the victim can grab onto it.
Anaheim Fire & Rescue has 22 firefighters trained and certified to go into water for rescues. At any given time, seven are on duty.
Firefighters offered some tips to the public when it comes to heavy rains.
Above all, they said, avoid being near water and don’t underestimate the danger involved. Even just a few inches of moving water can cause serious problems.
If you get stuck in flowing water, try to stay as buoyant as possible by floating with your feet up and facing downstream to deflect any debris.
Use your arms to try to move out of the middle of the flow, where the water moves fastest, to the side, where it will be easier for you to be rescued. Positioning yourself at an angle will improve the chances of you being moved to either side of the water flow.
Battalion Chief Chris Boyd of Orange City Fire, who ran Friday’s training session, said firefighters in Orange County are ready for El Niño.
“I will put this group of fire departments against any fire departments in the country when it comes to water rescue and command and control,” Boyd said. “We are very confident and capable here; we just need to continue to focus on what we do best.”