By David A. Farrell, Item Staff Writer
The Picayune Item
WALKIAH BLUFF —
More than 100 fire and police rescuers and medical responders, considered to be the best in Mississippi at what they do, are bivouacked at Walkiah Bluff Water Park for a week’s training in swift-water and boat-based search and rescue tactics.
The encampment is located about seven miles west of Picayune on the Pearl River.
The three task forces from which the personnel being trained are drawn are extensions of the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security, which reacts to emergency situations anywhere in Mississippi, and which was quickly on-hand after the tornado disaster in Yazoo City and Hurricane Isaac that recently flooded portions of South Mississippi and Pearl River County with torrential rains.
The rescue task forces were credited with saving lives in the Hurricane Isaac flooding.
An advanced logistics task force four, under the direction of Damon Green, logistics coordinator with Mississippi Homeland Security, arrived at noon Sunday, and by 6 p.m., was set up to house up to 175 responders and to feed them out of portable kitchens. The facility can dispense up to 900 meals a day, said Green.
The small village has ten tents in which the responders are housed and in which classes are conducted. There also are a large trailer for cooking and other tents that contain showering facilities. A large van at the base camp contains tools, parts and space for mechanical repairs to task force equipment. Generators supply electricity to the camp. The encampment is self-sustaining and self-sufficient.
“We are capable of sustaining ourselves at the same time as we accomplish our mission,” Green said as he took a break from his chores Monday morning to talk to the press. Green has been on more than 30 deployments with the task forces, his latest involving Hurricane Isaac and this week’s training deployment.
“We come in and set up a full base camp, and we can do it in about eight hours, but we can do it faster if necessary; speed is of the essence,” said Green. “We can then support indefinitely the task force personnel who actually do the rescues and life-saving and emergency operations.”
Water operations classroom training was already underway on Monday morning and will run through Wednesday. Beginning on Friday, emergency crews will suit up and head out to the Wilson Slough Diversion Point on the Pearl River to do some actual swift-water rescue training operations, said Danny Manley, Pearl River County Emergency Management Director and exercise public information officer.
Water from Pearl River is shunted down to the West Pearl at Wilson Slough where a weir speeds it up and produces actual rapids and swift-water. It is the only swift-water available in Mississippi for training purposes such as is needed by the three Mississippi Homeland Security task forces.
“It is ideal for the kind of training these guys have to undergo,” said Manley.
By Monday morning, the responders were already set up and involved in classroom training in the self-contained tents set up at the Walkiah Bluff Water Park. The tents are air-conditioned and insulated to protect personnel from the weather.
“The training at Wilson Slough is intense and dangerous,” said Manley. “They actually get into the rapids. There is only one way to adequately and safely learn about a water rescue of a person trapped in flood waters and that is to actually get in there and train to do it, and that’s what they will do here.” Wilson Slough is on the Pearl River about a half-mile north of Walkiah Bluff Water Park.
The week-long training operation is sponsored by the Mississippi Office of Homeland Security and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Participants in the training sessions were chosen from among Mississippi’s three state-wide task forces. Emergency personnel from throughout Mississippi make up the northern, central and southern task forces, Manley said. The task forces are comprised of fire, police, and emergency medical personnel who are considered tops in their professions.
“They are considered the best at what they do, and they actually risk their own lives to save lives,” said Manley.
Added Manley, “The selected individuals are trained to respond to a variety of disasters, including hurricanes, storms, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, dam failures, terrorist activities, and hazardous materials releases where victims might be trapped, lost or injured.”
“What most people don’t realize is that when an emergency responder enters a dangerous situation in order to save the victim, he is at as much risk of dying or being injured as the person he is rescuing. That’s why these training sessions are essential, and that’s why Mississippi Homeland Security does them. They spend a lot of money training these guys to save lives,” said Manley.
Said J.W. Ledbetter, Mississippi Homeland Security executive director, “Hurricane Isaac back in August proved just how important this type of training is for our emergency response task forces.’’
He added, “Immediately after the storm made landfall, teams from the north and central parts of the state were deployed to rescue and retrieve people who had become stranded because of rising water.”
“The Mississippi Office of Homeland Security is a division of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, and in fiscal year 2012 will distribute more than $5.29 million in Homeland Security Grant Program funding in Mississippi for training and equipment,” said Ledbetter.