This is the first in a series of stories about the people of our islands - your neighbors and friends that work and volunteer as members of San Juan Island Fire and Rescue. These are actual events – stories about emergency responses in and around our islands.
When you think of firefighters, you probably imagine them in bunker gear pointing hoses at burning buildings. You may not realize that your department of volunteers and staff train hard to provide a wide variety of emergency services.
San Juan Island Fire & Rescue (SJIF&R) received a request for help from Lopez Island one afternoon in mid-October. Two young kids on a paddleboard were in MacKay Harbor on Lopez Island, when a changing current pulled them out away from the shore. The weather on the water was deceptive; what had started off as a calm fall day was quickly turning, and it caught the family off guard. Suddenly, the parent who was watching from the shore was no longer able to see them over the rising swells.
Within minutes of receiving the emergency call, an SJIF&R crew of four had mustered at the Port of Friday Harbor, where Fireboat 31 is moored and they quickly launched to search for the children. As they were preparing to leave, dispatch forwarded encouraging news. A San Juan County Sheriff Deputy on Lopez had used binoculars to spot what looked like two small kids stuck on a rocky outcropping at the edge of the harbor. The deputy and a parent were off to try to reach the children by land.
Conditions were quickly deteriorating, with wave sets up to six feet and wind at 25 knots, with gusts up to 40 knots. With trained and practiced hands on the wheel, the boat crew made good time navigating through the rough water from Friday Harbor into San Juan Channel.
The kids had managed to steer out of the current and land their paddleboard, but were unable to scale the rocky cliff because they were cold, damp, and barefoot. One of the parents had climbed down to them with a blanket, which they were able to huddle under while they waited for more help. The two rescue technicians from San Juan Fire were put ashore to the east; one climbed over to the kids while the other moved uphill to coordinate with the on-scene deputy.
The boat was able to approach near the kids, and the experienced pilot kept the vessel in position against wind and waves as the children and their parent were helped aboard. The crew checked the kids for signs of hypothermia and transported them to the boat ramp, where they were met by Lopez Fire and Rescue for further evaluation and then released. Everyone was relieved to have a safe outcome to a very dangerous situation.
Why was San Juan Fire & Rescue responding to an emergency on Lopez, you might wonder? Our district includes not only San Juan Island but also Brown, Henry, Johns, Pearl, Stuart, and Spieden Islands. While our primary mission is protecting our district’s islands’ residents and visitors, we train and are prepared to assist our neighbors when the need arises. Over the last year, SJIF&R crews have responded and helped residents, visitors, and emergency services agencies outside of our district 23 times, including to Center, Decatur, Henry, Lopez, Orcas, Patos, Shaw, Stuart, Sucia, and Waldron Islands.
San Juan Fire also fulfills formal contracts with agencies like the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to provide both pre-hospital care and fire coverage to outer islands in our archipelago, or informal arrangements such as responding in support of the US Coast Guard Bellingham Station. The San Juan Fire boat is the only vessel available 24/7 for fire, medical, and search and rescue operations in a multi-county region. When smoke, fog, snow or storms prevent medical transports by air, we provide one of the only ways patients in our county can get to the big hospitals on the mainland. Your fire boat and trained crews are critical to emergency services throughout our islands.
The SJIF&R crew of four that responded for the Lopez paddleboard rescue has thousands of hours of training between them—as nationally certified medical technicians, as a Coast Guard-certified Captain, as rescue technicians and marine specialists, and also as wildland and structural firefighters. Most emergencies require multiple skill sets and are a little more complicated because we live on islands. Your first responders need to be equipped with broad competency and special skill sets. We aim to bring the best of our teamwork and training to every call, whether it’s stranded boaters, a medical emergency, or a fire.