Water rescues a team effort for local agencies

They have resources ready if a call for help comes

With warm weather comes residents’ return to the open water, and the hopes of McHenry County’s water rescue professionals that they never will need to be called.

But when the call for help comes, they have the training, gear and shared resources to save lives if need be.

If residents run into trouble in the water, be it on the Chain O’ Lakes or a rural swimming hole, their fire and rescue departments have a network of resources from which to draw to get as much help on the scene as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, it’s been a bad start to the year for water safety. Fire departments in early April extricated a 56-year-old Algonquin man from his car after he drove it into a retention pond at Algonquin Commons, and he died several days later. Two weeks after that incident, a 15-year-old Crystal Lake boy drowned in a pond at a party outside of town.

In any given year, the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District’s Swift Water Rescue Team may not receive any calls for a rescue in its jurisdiction, or it could receive five or more, Chief Patrick Mullen said. Ten of the district’s firefighters are trained in water rescue should the call be received.

“We know we have certain risks in the community,” Mullen said. “We have lakes in Lake in the Hills. We have a river that runs through our jurisdiction. Even though we don’t get a lot of service demand, it’s a capability that’s good to have.”

The district has a fleet of three boats – one rubber, one aluminum flat-bottomed boat and a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, which has a metal body and an inflatable collar. It doesn’t maintain a dive team in the event underwater skills are needed, but those resources are a phone call away.

The McHenry Township Fire Protection District is one of several in the county that has a dive team and a water rescue team. Those resources are shared through a pre-existing plan that is activated through the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System once a water rescue call comes, Deputy Chief Rudy Horist said. If a water rescue incident is severe enough, McHenry and Lake counties can call on one another as well.

“We’re all part of the mutual aid system,” Horist said. “Our divers go on a fairly regular basis, especially during the summer months. We’ll assist other communities with a water rescue incident. We have the ability to call in a lot of assistance relatively quickly. We can always turn them away or cancel it, but if we need that help, we need to get it on the road.”

Besides their boats, water rescue departments have other pieces of life-saving equipment.

Algonquin has quick-inflate rafts and buoys that can be thrown into the Fox River and steered by rope to the boil of the low-head dam from the bridge. The boils of low-head dams often are referred to as “drowning machines” because of the danger they present – a kayaker in April died after the current pulled him over the Geneva dam in Kane County. McHenry has flotation suits, commonly called “Gumby suits” because of the way the wearer looks, that help personnel in their rescue efforts.

Although the Fox River is just one body of water of many that rescue districts cover in their boundaries, the river and the Chain O’ Lakes are by far the most frequented. And while the McHenry County Sheriff Marine Unit’s primary function is enforcement, it also plays a preventative role.

The unit’s 16 officers and five boats patrol the river from mid-May through the end of October, Cmdr. Joe Marvin said. Its jurisdiction stretches from the Algonquin Dam north to the middle of Pistakee Lake. While deputies have first aid training and the boats are equipped with hooks and throw rings, more sophisticated rescues are the purview of the local water rescue teams.

Where deputies fit in is educating boaters and swimmers in the hopes of stopping irresponsible behavior that could require a future rescue or worse.

“We’re hopeful that prevents incidents from occurring,” Marvin said.

Mullen and Horist said most water emergencies can be prevented with respect for the water, common sense and knowledge of one’s limitations. Horist said that common sense should be employed year-round – winter water rescues are becoming more common.

“In the past three or four years, we’ve had more of an issue during the winter months with people getting in trouble out on the ice,” Horist said.

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