FINCASTLE – Botetourt County’s natural beauty can be breathtaking, but also has the potential to be deadly.
In June heavy rains flooded a trailer park in the Blue Ridge community, approximately 30 residents needed evacuated as rapid flooding swept through their neighborhood.
A day later, water from an overflowing Craig Creek covered roads, but an area resident needed immediate medical attention and a normal ambulance could not get through.
In August, a hiker needed medical attention in the Eagle Rock area. The medical emergency was in a remote area inaccessible by traditional methods.
These three events had the possibility of being deadly; however, Botetourt County’s Department of Fire and EMS Special Operation crews saw that nobody died during those difficult emergency responses. A mixture of career professionals and volunteers have saved countless lives since the Special Operations team started in the county about a decade ago, said Brandon Golla, Battalion Chief.
Botetourt County’s Special Operations Team focuses in four different areas: swift water rescue, rope rescue, wilderness search and rescue and large animal rescue, he explained. Already this year, the team has responded to more than 20 calls. Golla said the Special Operations Team arrives when traditional Fire & EMS services cannot reach the victims or are in need of specialized equipment to safely effect the rescue. The teams respond to “high risk, low frequency” calls, which are “uniquely dangerous, with a lot of risk to victim and Fire & EMS members,” he said.
The Swift Water Rescue team conducts search, rescue, and recovery operations for victims in swift water and flood environments. In September, the county was awarded more than $58,000 in a Swift Water Rescue Team Deployment Resources grant from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to help with training and equipment cost.
The Rope Rescue component specializes in using ropes and other equipment to reach victims and safely recover them. Golla said this specialty area is the “backbone” of the Special Operations team, as these skills are used nearly every time the Special Operations crew is deployed.
The Search and Rescue team is trained to find, and help lost people, while the large animal rescue team responds when a large animal is in medical need or assistance. Jeff Powell, the county’s Deputy Chief, explained large animal rescue is often a combined effort between the Sheriff’s Office and the Fire & EMS Department and often includes the response of local, specialized veterinary resources.
Powell explained members of each team must be physically and cognitively prepared. The situations require physical, as well as mental strength and are extremely high stress. Additionally, said Golla, being able to work as a team is “paramount.” Each candidate must attend hours of specialized training before receiving certification, the Fire & EMS officials said. But that is just a beginning. As Golla said, “The training never ends.” Rescuers must periodically attend additional training and certifications to sharpen their skills, he said.
Powell explained the county’s topography makes it necessary to have these Special Operations resources for the array of emergencies that can occur. “While beautiful, the outdoor environment can be unforgiving,” he explained. Each of Botetourt County’s seven fire stations has either volunteers or career professionals trained in Special Operations.
Recently, the Botetourt County Special Operations Team signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to provide mutual aid to other municipalities in Virginia. Powell said, “These partnerships ensure that we have immediate resources ready for our community, as well as being prepared to more seamlessly offer and receive aid from across the Commonwealth.”