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Calm before the storm: Texas Station rescuers regroup for next wave

With as many as 8 inches of rain having already fallen in Baltimore County, the next shift of rescuers were busy on Thursday, Sept. 8, preparing for more rainfall and, in turn, more rescues in flood-prone areas of Baltimore County.

While the shift on duty Thursday at Texas Station in Cockeysville had just come on that morning, and missed many of Wednesday's flooding events, Capt. Barry Ledford and his crew were no strangers to the types of rescues their colleagues took part in Wednesday.

"Of all the rescue calls we run and all the things we do, swift water rescues are the most unpredictable," he said.

"It could be 6 inches of standing water or it could be swift currents," he said. "We never know what we're getting into."

As of Thursday afternoon, Baltimore County officials said dozens of roads were still impassable around the county due to flooding. And the forecast for overnight — more thunderstorms likely throughout the region — made it likely the crew will be called upon often.

The Texas Station — as well as volunteer fire companies in Kingsville and Arbutus — has a swift water team. There are also marine units that operate in the eastern part of the county.

From Wednesday into Thursday, crews from Texas Station responded to 24 calls, many flood-related, in a 24-hour period before Ledford's shift came in — including one that saw a rescue boat tip over on the Patapsco River.

In that incident, four volunteers from Arbutus Volunteer Fire Company and two career firefighters from Texas Station had to be rescued by fellow firefighters on Wednesday afternoon as the Patapsco River swelled near Ellicott City. The rescuers were able to hold onto something stable while they themselves were assisted.

Lt. Mike Berna said the rescuers were lucky, but well-equipped to deal with the situation they found themselves in.

"Our training pays off when we rescue other people, but if those guys didn't have the proper training, it could have been a different story," Berna said.

For instance, in March 2010, a rescuer in West Virginia died after his boat malfunctioned and crashed into a bridge, throwing all three men inside into flood waters.

Go with the flow

At the Texas Station, firefighters pride themselves for being ready for any situation. As the county's urban search and rescue team, the station handles everything from building-collapses and confined-space rescues to trench-rescues.

Ledford said swift water rescues are most dangerous, and while every rescue is different, the rescuers can prepare themselves.

When bad weather is on its way, Berna said the station takes on a different feel.

Firefighters check fuel levels on boats, re-check gear bags and begin to mentally prepare for the tasks ahead.

Once on the scene of a water rescue, Berna can tell when trouble is brewing.

The general rule of thumb is that any vehicle, whether it's a mid-sized sedan or one of the station's fire engines, is liable to be swept away once the water level is halfway up their tire.

For passenger vehicles, as little as 6 inches of water can lift a vehicle.

"You can see them starting to bounce, touching the ground just enough to keep going," Berna said. "It's just so close to them going off the road."

If a car is stuck, rescuers first assess the speed and the height of the water.

In typical standing water on a roadway — known as a low-water crossing — rescuers will wade into the water as a group first. If the water level gets above their waists, the life jacket makes it difficult to walk. At that point, one of their zodiac-style rescue boats is required for rescues.

Heed the warnings

Most baffling to Berna and his colleagues are drivers who insist on trying to drive through standing water.

Yesterday, police had to block some roads just to prevent people from trying to cross.

"It's amazing to me that you can hear it on the news to the extent that you do, and people still don't listen," Berna said. "We'd be out doing a low-water crossing and they'll drive right past us. I truly don't understand it."

County firefighters, along with the police department and the Army National Guard, also collaborate with Maryland's Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team, which is utilized for more complicated rescues.

Thursday afternoon, an Army black hawk helicopter dropped off a set of radios to Texas Station as a means to aid communication — should heavy rains return Thursday night or Friday.

Thursday had slowed down since three morning calls that were ultimately canceled, but the team at Texas was prepared for things to pick up again.

"We know we can look at the weather and predict what might happen," Berna said. "As soon as we got here, we were ready."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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