Firefighter DJ Mattern teaches his colleagues rope skills he hopes they won’t have to put to use.

The instructor coupled knot tying with critical thinking exercises as part of Snohomish County Fire District 7’s Water Rescue Academy at Lake Tye Park last Tuesday. The new program localizes training the agency has historically had to outsource.

“It’s like, think of the worst-case scenario and plan for it,” Mattern said, standing beside a web of rope secured to trashcans and trees.

A woman had been kayaking on the Skykomish River about two years ago when the boat overturned, and she was stuck on a strainer — an obstruction that blocks water flow. A few of the fire district’s firefighters trained in water rescue techniques arrived at the scene, were able to think and act quickly and pulled her to safety.

Mattern said he believes the outcome may have been much worse had the group not known how to properly use ropes. Generally, few situations require that skill set, he said.

The fire district receives more than two dozen calls between May and October for emergencies that happen on the area’s many rivers and lakes or during a flood. Fire District 7 spokesperson Heather Chadwick said that figure includes sending aid for other agencies.

Two water-related deaths have already been recorded this year. A Monroe woman fell in near Cedar Ponds Lake in April, and a Bothell woman’s body was found a few weeks later at the base of Wallace Falls in Wallace Falls State Park.

Last summer there were nearly half a dozen water-related deaths in the Sky Valley. In June, two people fell in at Sunset Falls within a few weeks of each other, and a Gold Bar man went missing and was later found in the Skykomish River. Two people then fell at separate times and died at Wallace Falls later in the season.

Chadwick said the fire district plans to eventually offer the rescue training to the entire region, in addition to “training our own.”

Academy coordinator Jamal Beckham said the fire district now has six certified instructors, and each brings their own specialty to the position. About 40 of the fire district’s roughly 140 staff are trained in water rescue, he said.

The agency operates eight stations. For some management purposes they are grouped into different sections, which helps administrators adequately staff the sites.

Chadwick said those firefighters are split between four shifts. They are usually scheduled in the eastern part of the fire district, where the vast majority of the area’s waterways are. A boat operator is almost always on duty at Station 31 in Monroe, where the agency’s boat is housed, she said. 

Fire District 3 and Fire District 7 merged in 2016 to form the current Fire District 7.

Responders cover 98.5 square miles, and provide services to 110,000 residents in Monroe, Maltby, Clearview, Mill Creek and other surrounding communities.

All firefighters are also trained as either an EMT or paramedic. They can also work different specialties, such as water rescue, technical rescue, or the hazardous materials team.

Beckham said it has taken about a year to develop and get the new training academy started. Everyone who is interested in the certification has to pass a three-part assessment first, including an interview, written exam and a swim test.

The course requires firefighters to be able to swim for 10 meters underwater, down to depths of 40 feet without scuba gear, and through a relatively fast-moving river with rapids, Beckham said. Training starts in a pool, then progresses into a lake, and followed by swift-moving water, Chadwick said.

“We can’t just go throw people in the river,” Beckham said.

He said bulking up the skills of personnel makes the entire team stronger as a whole. Chadwick said it also makes the community and entire region safer. The training takes about a week to complete, she said.

Chadwick and Beckham said they were looking forward to a new security measure for Lake Tye. The City of Monroe has agreed to purchase equipment so the fire district can string a buoy line across the water.

The 40-acre lake has a shore that gradually slopes to about 15 feet, Chadwick said. Then there is a big shelf. Many people don’t know about it. The buoy line would alert swimmers to the drop, and in an emergency could be used as a reference point and help responders narrow down a search, she said.

Families can also borrow lifejackets from the fire district, Chadwick said. The loaner gear is at Station 31, 163 Village Court in Monroe, where people can also get outfitted.

A few of this first year’s trainees are from other agencies. Some of the equipment was loaned to the fire district, like two jet skis from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, Chadwick said. It gives the firefighters more chances to learn about what kind of vessel may be better to use in different scenarios, she said.

Instructor Pat Gjerde, who covers boat training, said the recent merger, and including other agencies in training broadens everyone’s knowledge base. It also helps with networking and developing stronger partnerships, he said.