Barnegat Light Fire Co. Training Officer Campaigns for Island-Wide Rescue System Using Local Watermen

Volunteer-Based System Would Organize Agencies and Utilize Those With Ocean Skills
Aug 23, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Bob Selfridge (left), a training officer for Barnegat Light Beach Patrol and Barnegat Light Volunteer Fire Co., helps ‘save a distressed swimmer’ during a water rescue drill in June.

Let’s say you have a weekday off in September, a gorgeous day of abundant sunshine. You head over to LBI, mid-Island, where the beaches are nearly empty. Since the water in September is as almost as warm as it is now, you go for a swim.

There’s no lifeguard on duty. The surf is small and the wind is light; no danger today. But as you come off the sandbar into deeper water, you find yourself being drawn out to sea. If you know anything about rip currents, you swim north or south instead of fighting it. And you’ll likely be just fine. But maybe you find yourself getting pulled farther and farther out with fatigue setting in. Clearly someone else on the beach can see you’re in trouble, right? They will surely call 911.

That’s very possible. But now you may be waiting for either the police to arrive, in their uniforms, or a water rescue unit from Beach Haven or Barnegat Light. Hopefully, you know how to tread water.

“For the number of water rescues we do here on LBI, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to involve some new people who already have solid waterman skills with rescue basic training. And we have such amazing fire, water and first responders here. Why not have everyone on the same page?” asked Bob Selfridge, a Barnegat Light resident, emergency medical technician for AtlantiCare and training officer for the Barnegat Light Beach Patrol and Barnegat Light Volunteer Fire Co.

Selfridge has long campaigned for the various Island agencies to better align themselves with each other so the appropriate responders can quickly respond to the appropriate calls.

“There are six different towns and five different fire companies. There are three separate first aid squads. Barnegat Light First Aid has to cover Barnegat Light to Surf City, including North Beach and Loveladies for Long Beach Township. Surf City covers Surf City and Ship Bottom. Beach Haven has to cover Beach Haven and the rest of Township.”

Throw in four different police forces and the fact that water rescue is generally stationed in Beach Haven and Barnegat Light, and communication gets difficult. He praises the volunteer units from north to south and mutual aid agencies but points out that they all have different systems.

What Selfridge is most concerned about is speed in water rescue, considering that we are an island in every sense, and swimmers in peril, boating accidents and wayward paddlers can quickly become fatalities. As a longtime Island local, he’s well aware of the number of competent watermen up and down the whole Island who might be available in the late spring, early fall, or before and after lifeguard hours in the summer. He wants to have an alert system that would let off-duty lifeguards, surfers, fishermen and others know if someone was in trouble within a few blocks, someone who could get to a victim quickly with some kind of flotation device.

“The first step would be getting the off-duty lifeguards who are willing to volunteer. They’re already trained in first aid and rescue. That’s a matter of reaching out to the beach patrols to see who’s interested,” he explained.

But it’s those other watermen, the ones with years of ocean experience and skills, the ones who have likely saved swimmers in the past, who he feels are an untapped resource.

“I envision guys who are always working on the oceanfront and have (surf)boards in their trucks, guys like Paul Boardman, who does home maintenance. I can’t think of a guy that I would rather have come grab me if I was in trouble,” he said.

Boardman is a surfer, former lifeguard and occasional commercial fisherman.

Selfridge explained there is already a system in place called Active 911, which sends a notification to cell phones of volunteer first responders who aren’t stationed at a fire hall or first aid building waiting for a call. It would become more efficient geographically and keep multiple responders from speeding long distances to calls.

“You wouldn’t answer a Brant Beach call if you were in Beach Haven. Or if you were a water rescue guy, you wouldn’t necessarily be running to a fire. And then you don’t have the police coming down and trying to get out of uniform to make a save,” he said.

He explained there are firefighters who are excellent rescue swimmers, but beefing up water responder units would make a big difference.

Selfridge is pitching the idea to the 18 Mile Emergency Service Organization with hopes that it will work toward adopting it.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Rick McDonough, president of the Ship Bottom Fire Co. and former member of the Ship Bottom Beach Patrol. “If a surfer is working on the Island somewhere and his phone goes off, he or she doesn’t even need to get the person to the beach. They just have to get to the victim, provide flotation and wait for the cavalry to arrive. A drowning victim is similar to a heart attack. The faster you administer CPR, the better the outcome is going to be. The first step is to get to the person, give them something to hold onto and reassure them that help is on the way.”

McDonough recently took eight of his firefighters out past the break in Ship Bottom with a single rescue buoy. All eight men were able to hang onto the can and keep themselves afloat, proving to his unit how useful the smallest amount of flotation can be.

Part of the issue is that outside of the police departments, all of LBI’s responders are volunteers. Just across Great Bay, the city of Brigantine has fire and water rescue companies with teams of professionals, as do Atlantic City, Longport, Margate and Wildwood. Up in coastal Monmouth County, Asbury Park and Long Branch have paid emergency responder units as well. Small towns, like those on LBI, don’t have the budget for professional squads.

Selfridge noted that numbers of volunteers are down across the board nationwide. Water rescue might require overburdened and unpaid EMTs and firefighters to take even more training. The local fire companies could take on a few more watermen as volunteers, but doing the 180 hours of firefighter training and possibly additional 250 hours of EMT training is a deal breaker for most.

“Everybody has a life,” he pointed out.

But in order to be insured, for both liability and workman’s comp, any first responder would have to be part of an organized agency. Lifeguards are already covered. The challenge would be finding the workarounds so new rescue members wouldn’t have to go through lengthy firefighter training. They would be required to get CPR certified, take a basic responder’s driving course and proper rescue class, swim 500 yards in less than 10 minutes (or similar test), and stay up on certification.

“All the organizations that are acting in a response capacity are insured by the Ocean County Joint Insurance Fund. The biggest thing is how do we get someone recognized by the local agencies. Then we get them certified and insured,” added McDonough, who agrees with Selfridge that the full fire course requirements are keeping the agencies from getting the numbers they need to get water rescue personnel.

“I think if these agencies want to put public safety first, they’d be happy to work around some of those antiquated rules that were put in place at a time when they were discouraging a guy who was just looking at a volunteer fire company as a place to drink,” said Selfridge.

“There are all these hours of training, but I’ll take someone who’s already skilled with two critical hours of training if it’s going to save a life in the water,” added McDonough.

McDonough wouldn’t mind seeing the model grow to include volunteer divers and sand rescue for collapsed holes and suffocation. He mentioned a network of water emergency responders in Monmouth County called ANSWER, Area Network of Shore Water Emergency Responders, that our locals could use as a model.

“More people are talking about it,” said Selfridge. “Where you have high volume areas of swimmers, some agencies want to have rescue swimmers. A few years ago, that didn’t exist.”

— Jon Coen

joncoen@thesandpaper.net

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