MCHENRY, MD. (WJZ) — Imagine: you’re trapped in your car and water is rising fast. With each passing second waiting to be rescued, your air pocket shrinks.
Then, you hear the splash of a firefighter entering the water near your car. Help is on the way.
In Western Maryland Monday, the Baltimore City Fire Department’s Search and Rescue teams trained for this terrifying scenario.
When people attempt to drive through standing water on roadways, it can put both the driver and rescuers’ lives at risk in only seconds.
“For us, the hazard is, we can get pinned under the vehicle. It can siphon us and trap us. The vehicle can be swept away with us behind it,” said Mike Berna of Atlantic Technical Rescue.
Berna, who has more than 25 years of experience with the Baltimore County Fire System and routinely trains firefighters for swift water rescues, ran Monday’s drills.
He says Adventure Sports Center International in McHenry, Maryland, is one of only three facilities in the country that can provide this type of training. The man-made river is typically used for kayaking and white water rafting, and crews can crank up the speed of the water.
For four hours, firefighters fought through whitewater, rescuing one of their own over and over again.
Berna said these man-made rapids are as close as crews can get to the real experience.
“Typically, we don’t get to do this until it’s time for the real call. And that’s not when you really want to be learning on the job,” said Berna. “You want to have some idea of what’s going on.”
It takes less than a foot of floodwater to wash away a vehicle. Half of flood-related deaths involve vehicles, killing roughly 400 people every year.
Last September, a Harford County woman was swept away by floodwaters while trying to rescue another stranded driver.
“So, the majority of our calls nationally, but especially in the Baltimore Metro Area, is people like to drive through what we call low water crossings. Nationally, it’s 50 percent of fatalities occur in cars during floods,” Berna said.
The rescue drills Monday gathered a crowd. Tracy Rohr, visiting Deep Creek from Virginia, said watching is a chilling reminder of the motto, ‘turn around, don’t drown’.
“Even though these cars are secure, they still move in this water. And it just shows that if they were not secure, they would be floating right on down that river,” Rohr said.
Also watching from shore was Francis Britcher, a retired Baltimore City Fire Captain whose three sons all became firefighters. His youngest son, Brian, participated in Monday’s rescue drills.
“You’ve got three or four people you’re working with and you’re counting on them,” Britcher said. “If you have confidence in people you work with, and you all work together, we all go home.”
Going home is the goal for both victims and rescuers, and these new skills will one day save lives in Baltimore.
Atlantic Technical Rescue holds about four trainings near Deep Creek every year and works with rescue teams from all over the world.