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Legislators play victims in water rescue exercise

A mock “survivor” is lifted from the waters of Lake Norman near Denver on Wednesday, during rescue training exercises.
Ray Gora / Lincoln Times-News

JENNA-LEY HARRISON
Staff Writer

N.C. Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, and N.C. Sen. Chris Carney, R-Iredell, may have been at their party headquarters on Tuesday, but by Wednesday, they found themselves tied to the end of a rope dangling from a helicopter over the waters of Lake Norman.
The politicians served as fake victims this week during one of the N.C. Helo-Aquatic Rescue Team’s (NCHART) quarterly training sessions in Denver. The drills took place Monday through Thursday using National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters based out of Salisbury. The team additionally uses helicopter types, National Guard LUH-72 Lakota and Highway Patrol Bell 407, according to an NCHART fact sheet.
NCHART, established in 1999, is comprised of 47 rescue technicians across North Carolina with pilots from both the N.C. National Guard and N.C. Highway Patrol Aviation Units. Before joining the team, rescue technicians undergo a physical fitness test and an 80-hour course along with swift water rescue training.
“It was pretty exhilarating,” Saine said of his participation in the exercise. “It’s amazing how quick it goes; it’s over in a matter of seconds.”
Emergency crews asked Saine to participate in the training, and he, in turn, invited Carney.
“I said, ‘What are you doing the day after the election?’” Saine said.
He told the Times-News that he’s used to the swift water drills after serving on the East Lincoln Fire Department’s water rescue team for the last three years but has never played the part of a victim. He’s been with the department since 2004, he said.
Carney added that he felt at ease during the exercise since pilots continuously informed him of his next move.
“They’re telling you what to do the whole time,” he said.
A number of Lincoln County emergency responders assisted state agencies with the drill, which according to Julia Jarema, public information officer for the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, saves the state money by using local rescue technicians.
Denver Fire Chief Jay Flynn agreed.
“It consolidates equipment and unifies skills already present,” he said.
In addition, drills are carried out at various locations across the state in order to train first responders in diverse settings and situations.
“We pick a different scenario each time,” Jarema said.
Wednesday’s exercise consisted of a stillwater rescue scenario, which according to Denver Fire Department Public Information Officer Dion Burleson, would typically occur during a flooding or mass casualty situation.
During the exercise, each of the two helicopters flew over a designated area in the water where “victims” were stationed. Guardsmen inside the helicopters tossed out short-haul ropes for rescuers to tether to their life vests and slowly pulled them up out of the water.
Assistant Lincoln County Manager Martha Lide praised local agencies’ collaboration in practicing for potential water crisis situations.
“It’s a unique opportunity so that we’re prepared when something really does happen,” she said.
Denver resident Pam McConnell and her 13-year-old son Nathan were on-hand Wednesday to watch the training exercise from the peer of their waterfront home.
Pam noted that she was out walking her dogs one evening when Chief Flynn told her about the upcoming rescue training. She was shocked to later find helicopters practically training in her backyard.
“We didn’t know we’d be looking right at it,” she said.
Pam added that the constant noise from the choppers had her dogs up in arms each day.
“They’re really scared of thunder so they associate it with that,” she said.
Local participating agencies included fire agencies from East Lincoln, Denver, Pumpkin Center, Boger City, South Fork, Sherrills Ford, Mooresville and Shepherd’s Fire Department from Queens Landing. Charlotte Fire Department additionally assisted along with Transportation Lincoln County and Lincoln County Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services.
Lincoln County is additionally certified in a number of other specialized rescue teams including confined space, land-search, high-angle rope and critical incident stress management. Burleson added that the county is also currently in the beginning stages of adding an incident management team.

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