Fire Captain Garon Coalwell spearheads a new safety regime for Cal Fire and PBCSD
By Megan Mayer
Have you wondered why, if “jet skis” (personal water craft, or “PWCs”) are banned in the marine sanctuary, we have one stationed on our pier? Or perhaps you saw people zipping around Stillwater Cove on PWCs and wondered what has changed. While PWCs remain banned in the marine sanctuary for recreational use, Cal Fire has a special exemption to use them for training and water rescue services. In fact, during a competency check off session with a Craft Operator, someone called NOAA to complain about the “Jet Skis” in the marine sanctuary. It was a six month permit process with NOAA to allow training in the marine sanctuary, training that brings a new rescue team to our coast.
Addressing Coastal Risk
The new Rescue Swimmer Program is part of Cal Fire’s expanding protection coverage. Until now, our coastline was not being addressed by Pebble Beach Community Services District (“PBCSD”), who contracts with Cal Fire. The Carmel Highland station has one Inflatable Rigid Boat (“IRB”), a 14 foot Zodiac 40CC outboard, that it puts in at Whaler’s Cove in Point Lobos, but Cal Fire could not put any person in the water at any time, which severely limits their ability to rescue victims from the water. Fire Captain Garon Coalwell came to San Benito – Monterey County Cal Fire as a Rescue Swimmer from San Luis Obispo County. He is bringing the program to our region, which permits swimmers in the water and provides training for ocean hazards unique to our coastal terrain. The training is optional so not all of our fire fighters pursue the program, but thus far we have 15 rescue swimmers and 4 Rescue Water Craft (“Craft”) operators. Six potential operators need only to check off their competencies and then we will have 10 operators. They try to schedule at least one swimmer and one Craft operator at each station per day. The covered region is from Carmel Highlands to Asilomar, except for Carmel by The Sea, which is contracted with the City of Monterey and thus must request assistance before Cal Fire can respond. The program is now one year old, with their first call coming on the day of the PBCSD Annual Open House and BBQ in June of 2016.
Reduced Response Time
Cal Fire may “put in” their Craft at Whaler’s Cove in Point Lobos or our own Stillwater Cove, and nowhere else. Yet even with only two input locations, the Cal Fire Rescue Swimmer Program greatly reduces response time for coastal rescues. If, for example, a tourist was pulled into the ocean near Bird Rock in Pebble Beach, the U.S. Coast Guard, Monterey City Fire, and Pebble Beach Fire Station (“PBFS,” at Lopez and Forest Lake roads) would be the agencies responding to the call. The Coast Guard has a 25 minute procedural check to get a boat on the way. Monterey City does not staff a boat continually so engaging a boat could easily take a while. However, the PBFS will send a Craft Operator to Stillwater Cove to put in, while sending a swimmer directly to Bird Rock to enter from the shore. Thus the PBFS can reach Bird Rock fastest of the three agencies. No other agency can send a swimmer to enter the ocean from the shore. The protocol would also include sending the IRB from Whaler’s Cove. Thus, coastal rescues include Surf Rescue Technicians (Rescue Swimmers) from the shore, the Craft from Stillwater Cove, and the IRB from Whaler’s Cove.
The Crafts provide a unique benefit to the program due to their speed, maneuverability, and ability to operate in only 2 feet of water. The Craft is a Yamaha VXR with 1812cc motor. Coast Guard and Monterey City crafts require 25’ of water to operate, leaving a large swath of coastline to the skills of the Craft Operators. The Craft is now stored directly on the pier at Stillwater Cove, permitting operators to go directly to the pier to put in, rather than going to the station to haul the Craft to the pier. This change cuts their time to get into the water to within 8 minutes.
New Skill Set for Fire Fighters
Training is extensive. Rescue Swimmers must complete a 500 meter ocean swim in less than 12 minutes, and take 40 hours of swimming rescue training. Swimmers may then seek training of an additional 40 hours to become a Craft Operator. Once they complete the training and a competency check off, they can be listed in the dispatch as a Craft Operator.
Captain Coalwell has structured our program to emulate those of San Luis Obispo and Marin Counties. “The Fire Chiefs and the community have been very supportive. Stevenson School permits training of rescue swimmers in their pool, which is a huge help.” Rescue Swimmers swim 2-3 times per week at Stevenson to keep up their strength. Fire Fighter and Rescue Swimmer Phillip Doyle holds the record for swimming, making the 500 meter ocean swim in 7 minutes, 25 seconds.
Our rugged and rocky terrain is particularly hazardous, creating difficult exertion points. Doyle notes, “The program is a culture shift for fire fighters entering the water; the change in fitness requires use of different muscles and movements.” The ocean presents a unique and difficult challenge, with unpredictable and strong currents. “Our waves are very heavy here and our currents are confusing, making reading the water tough.” Both Doyle and Coalwell like to swim in Stevenson School’s pool and Spanish Bay to maintain their strength.
“We have 3-4 drownings per year between Point Lobos and Bird Rock, and 25-30 responses per year with the IRB,” explains Coalwell. “Now with the RWC, we can improve on that.” The fire captain hopes to reduce response time even further. Here at Stillwater Cove, Port Captain Charlie Kurtmen and the Pebble Beach Company are cooperating with Cal Fire to get a floating dock on the opposite side of the pier, where many of us used to jump into the water as children. This dock would be in the water for the same period of time as our regular dock. During the winter, the Craft will be locked on the trailer as it is now.
Often, the water is rough enough that once the Rescue Swimmers pass the shore break, they will not return through it, especially with a rescued victim, and will instead swim farther out to meet the Craft or IRB rather than risk returning through the tough coastal currents on shore. Likewise might a Rescue Swimmer not enter the water at all. Coalwell explains, “Each Rescue Swimmer has their own set of strengths and level of comfort in various water conditions, so each swimmer makes their own choice about whether to go into the water or to use a craft to reach a victim. The last thing we want is to have two victims, so each swimmer makes that call individually.” We are grateful the Cal Fire team at PBFS has brought this new rescue program to our area.