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Swift water program trains potential rescuers (7-8-99)

Rescue technician Vicky Smith is always preparing for the "next one." She wants others to be prepared, too.

The "next one" is a killer flood like the deluge that hit Bexar County and South Texas and Central Texas in October 1998. That disaster took a heavy toll in lives, homes and dollars. Recently Smith, from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio's Department of Emergency Medical Technology, organized the Texas Flood Rescue Summit. This five-day school trained more than a dozen firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), game wardens from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and even animal rescue staff members from the Texas Humane Society.

"The first two days of the school covered what we call swift water rescue exercises, or flood surface water rescue exercises," Smith said. "We are talking about extremely quick water, with lots of debris. Personnel learned how to rescue others as well as themselves."

The last three days of the course were devoted to use of "personal water crafts"--essentially water rescue with jet skis. "That's high-speed stuff," Smith said. "The jet ski pulls a rescue basket containing a rescue technician. When the victim is reached, the technician scoops up the injured person quickly but delicately, and places him in the basket. The rescue technician holds the victim in the basket as the driver pulls them back to shore."

It's never easy bringing someone to safety. Victims may have dangerously low body temperature or go limp from exhaustion. Some do not know how to swim. These conditions contribute to panic, the technician's most difficult enemy in water rescues.

Smith has been there a time or two. She is with the Texas Task Force, the state's only urban search-and-rescue team. Though she was not involved in the San Antonio-area flood rescue efforts last year, she went to Del Rio and Eagle Pass when those areas were hard hit.

Smith has taught at the Health Science Center for 10 years. She helps train 300 firefighters and military personnel annually in rescue techniques and emergency procedures. "We train all of the firefighters in water rescues," she pointed out. "I've heard a few say, 'I don't know why we have to know this, we'll never use it', but after the Big Flood, some of them called and said thank you. The training they received saved their lives and the lives of others."

Trained rescue personnel are prepared to act quickly in various scenarios. "Nothing ever goes by the book, but if that book is big enough, you can find something to use," said Smith. Her motto and professional philosophy as an EMT is to "live to train, and train to live." That way, when the big one hits, rescuers can stay out of harm's way and help those who are in it.

Smith was a firefighter-paramedic for six years in Kirby, a San Antonio suburb, and Port Lavaca on the Texas Gulf Coast. She was born and raised in San Antonio. She is a mom with a 20-year-old daughter, Lacey, and a 6-year-old daughter, Lorah.

Her expertise also includes vertical high-angle rescue, cave rescue, and collapsed building rescue and search. The Department of Emergency Medical Technology offers training courses in these specialties as well.

Contact: Will Sansom