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Emergencies Reviewed 2016

Each year we are all called upon to support our area emergency services. Some of these services are paid for through taxes, some are commercial, and some are primarily voluntary. At the end of the season, I like to review some of these events, in order that we have an understanding of what we got for our efforts. This report is done from memory, without any effort to organize, in order of importance, and without any pretence of accuracy or completeness. It is, quite simply, my recollections of the summer. I hope it helps us all to understand that help is available when needed, but the prevention and avoidance of emergency situations beats our responders' best efforts to fix what went wrong.

And Easy One

Let's start with an easy one. Two young people were operating an outboard near Round Island. Somehow, it suddenly developed a large hole in the bottom. The occupants donned life jackets, and the passenger called her family. A passing boater helped them to get the boat to a near-by dock where the boat sank as the occupants got off. This all took place in a matter of minutes, and the excitement was over before any regular responders could have gotten there. The next day we moved the boat to a boathouse with an overhead hoist. The boat was lifted and patched enough to allow it to be towed to a marina and placed on a trailer for repairs over the winter. This could have been a big deal,, but I would call it a "do- it- yourselfer". No injuries, no environmental damage, no authorities, no insurance claims, big deal. Wish they were all that easy. 

By contrast, another event was heralded by a 911 dispatch, for a small houseboat, aground and taking on water, north of Grindstone Is. There was a report of several people aboard, some of them children. Apparently, the call  to 911 came from a cell phone, and the caller was not very familiar with major River landmarks. The dispatch computer, lists the nearest intersection of roads, which is only of partial help when the incident is not on land. The north end of the Cross Island Road, was what I got from the dispatch, but there was also mention of Ennis' Shoal.

That shoal is not listed by name on the River charts, but we were familiar with a rocky shoal that is near the Ennis cottage. That must be the place. On arrival, we found a small pontoon-type houseboat that was aground, holed, and listing to starboard. The occupants were in no immediate distress, and were being assisted by passers-by and the salvor, who had also responded. Proximity to the Canadian border, and the seaworthiness of the vessel, were possible issues for the authorities, and the Coast Guard was responding. There was no fire and no need for other emergency assistance, so the fireboat was disregarded, which saves them time and money, and gets the boat back into service, in case something else arises. Again, daylight, proximity to shore, and availability of local assistance, kept this one easy.

Another daylight call was for a young lady, who had apparently developed problems while attempting to swim across the Channel, from Fisher's Landing, to Wellesley Island. The response was swift and vigorous. It included Fisher's Landing FD, Wellesley Island Fireboat, Clayton Fireboat, USCG, and local law enforcement. The "swimmer" was located in a house, and the responders were disregarded. The general feeling was that we had had an excellent drill.

Medical Emergencies

Of course, there are always the medical emergencies in the summer. The Clayton Fireboat and TIERS crew responded to Round Island, for a broken pelvis. Wellesley Island Fireboat transported a person with a shoulder injury, from  Murray Island. A man with meat caught in his throat, was managed by prompt evaluation and referral to the local ER, by private vehicles. Subsequent reports indicated a satisfactory outcome. We saw a superficial laceration of a hand, sustained by a tree cutter, and a chin laceration, on an adorable little girl. She had had a prior injury, a couple of years ago, for which we had seen her. Now, in the presence of cousins, siblings, and other relatives, she was sure that her own private physician would be just right, to wash it off and apply a Band-Aid.

Another "do-it-yourselfer" was a sailor who had jibed in high wind, with an inexperienced crew. The boat 'turtled", and with the sheet jammed, it could not be righted. Also, with the boat inverted, it was nearly impossible to tow.  The two occupants were  both very senior citizens, and one was in marginal physical shape, for the circumstances. They were rescued by Grindstone Islanders, and we were requested to help retrieve the boat. The Coast Guard was on the scene, and they assisted in getting commercial towing assistance. No one was hurt, but the boat was damaged. Again, no clear need for the fireboat at this event, but others were soon coming.

Late one night I heard a loud noise outside. I thought there might have been an accident, but I could see nothing amiss. I went back inside to see what the computer would tell me about Seaway traffic.. Just then I heard a 911 dispatch for a boat accident, at West Crawford Island. In getting underway, you try to put it together; is it really on the island, or was that just the nearest land? How many boats are involved? They said three people in the boat, but are there others in the water? All the islanders know what I mean, by a "black night". Some nights have no moonlight, and only the shore lights show up. These produce reflections in the pilot house, which makes it look a little like Christmas, with flashing reds and greens.

The Fireboat,” Last Chance”, called en route, and we urged the Coast Guard to hurry, because of the sound of the crash. Fortunately, it was one of those calls when everything goes right. The distressed boat was quickly located, there were no other boats or people involved, the Fireboat with TIERS and the salvage boat showed up. First-aid, triage, and prompt evacuation, led to a satisfactory outcome,from a very scary event. 

About a week later, we got a call that there was someone calling for help in the River, off Grindstone Island. Again, a prompt response led to finding a person who had apparently fallen out of a boat. The boat was drifting and the victim was struggling. The Fireboat approached, but the usual combination of life ring, and boat hook, failed to bring the victim to the ladder. What happened next was without precedent. Our strongest rescuer jumped off the boat and grabbed the swimmer. When it was apparent that he was having difficulty managing the swimmer, two other firefighters jumped in to help out. That spectacular bit of teamwork probably saved her life. The Fireboat headed for shore, and the Coast Guard came to complete the paperwork. I think that either the Park Police, or the Border Patrol, also responded to that event

Next was a call for a sailboat on fire. The location was given as 15328 Round Island. The 911 numbers are not usually too helpful, but this was an exception, as that's our house. The Fireboat was getting underway when we located the sailboat. It was not on fire, but was taking on water. A near-by cruiser had taken part of the crew off, and the boat was making way to the marina.  The Fireboat was disregarded, and the sailboat was escorted to her dock. Commercial salvage responded, but was not required. Again, a happy ending. 

Finally, one of the more exciting events occurred, as part of a wedding celebration. A commercial dinner cruise boat was nearing the marina,to pick up 110 guests from a wedding. The wind came up vigorously, and about a mile short of the destination, the boat suddenly lost power. She was unable to maintain headway, against the wind, and began  drifting toward near-by islands. Quick communication among the captain, crew, marina manager, and the wedding party, led to a rapid  switch to Plan B. Dinner for the party would move into the hotel, and if we could get a tow line on the boat, we would take her to an island lee, and await commercial salvage. The captain and crew were quick to respond to the offer of a tow, and with assistance from Little Round Island, she was pulled to safety, out of the wind and waves and away from the rocky shores. Commercial salvage arrived promptly and towed her back to her pier. The Fireboat was disregarded, and everyone went home safe and sound. 

Learning Lesson Number One

First was a call for a lady who had fallen down a ledge and had multiple injuries. The dispatch sounded to me like the area known as Lower Town Landing. This is an occasional destination for the fireboat when there are problems at the lower end of the island. By coincidence, the family name of the residence there is the same as the name of a bay near the foot of the island. I recognized the family name of the victim, and was aware of their home being on this bay. However, it is not uncommon for people with medical problems to be transported from the point of injury to one of the town landings to facilitate transport. Since the Lower Town Landing was closer, I went there first.

Of course, when you arrive there in a hurry, you must first check with the fishermen to see if they had initiated the call. When you are met by blank stares and questions, you know the answer. But then the folks who are renting the cottages start running down the hill to see if they can help. Same reaction, same response. Clearly, I am in the wrong location. 

I mention this because it is helpful. Now I can radio the fireboat and send them directly to the correct place. 

Fortunately, the injuries did not seem to be too severe, and slow, careful evacuation by litter with a long rope belay could be accomplished. 

So did we learn anything? Maybe so. When the name of the bay and the name of the neighbors is the same, take a minute to clarify it. In the long run this saves time and effort. Secondly, moving a victim in a litter down a long steep slope is made quicker, easier, and safer by having a long line to belay the whole maneuver. 

Learning Lesson Number Two

About 11:30 PM we received a dispatch, for someone with difficulty breathing, on an island. Other than the location, there was little information. "Difficulty Breathing" engenders thoughts of asthma, congestive heart failure, pneumonia, allergic reaction, heart attack, and some other less common conditions. We got underway with haste; distance and response times are inevitably longer, when the problem occurs at night, and on the far side of an island. Getting there as quickly as possible is a primary goal.

I arrived at the dock, just ahead of the Fireboat. We were met by land transport, but the only additional information we received was, "She isn't doin' too good." What we learned from that was the victim was female, and that her condition had not improved during our response. Getting there quickly was still a priority. TIERS and Fire Department personnel crowded into a small vehicle and made a quick trip across the island.

On arrival, we encountered not an elderly lady, with shortness of breath, but a younger person acutely agitated. The details of management are not appropriate, but the reason for writing about it is to demonstrate how important the initial dispatch information is, and how quickly the responders have to react and revise their management plan, in the face of unexpected circumstances. 

I recently reviewed a training program, on dealing with this type of issue. The program, and the recommendations it offered, was predicated on an urban setting, very short transport time, to a fully staffed Emergency Room, availability of on-scene reinforcements, and ready communication with the ER doctor, for medical advice. So let's see how this was working out for us.

The Importance of Teamwork

When all else fails, teamwork is usually the answer. The combination of TIERS paramedics, Firefighters, and bystander-recruits resulted in an effective team. The victim received the very best care possible, by folks who cared enough to risk their personal safety, to bring her the help she needed. We will never know, but I am guessing that her life may have been saved that night. 

What have we learned? We are much more likely to carry law enforcement, on the initial response than previously. We have learned the value of asking the dispatcher for any more details of the event, and the County is investing in a superior communication system that will be helpful.

As these events seem to be increasing in frequency, more training is being directed to improve management and decrease the risks to the patients and the caregivers. All in all, I think this was one of our safest summers. Response times were generally good, and inter-agency cooperation, seemed better than ever. Have a safe winter, so that we can do it all over again!

By Richard L. Withington, Round Island

Dr. Richard (Dick) L. Withington is a retired Orthopedic Surgeon and is best known on the River for his rescue work, with his boat “Stormy.”   Each winter Dr. W. writes articles that provide his special view of the Thousand Islands – and we thank him for this.

Dick’s first article for TI Life, A Winter Islander, was published in January 2009.  To see all of Dick’s island experiences, search TI Life under Richard L. Withington. Also be sure to see The Doctor is in, February 2012, written by Kim Lunman, writer and publisher of Island Life, a print magazine.

Several islanders and mainlanders have worked hard to help raise $1.3 million to support building a new home for TIERS.

The “TIERS Saving One Life at a Time Campaign” will ensure the continued provision of the highest level of emergency medical care available to the Towns of Clayton and Orleans and their associated islands as well as to the broader Thousand Islands region through mutual aid.  We encourage our readers to give generously – it could save a life.

See Testimonial: Saving a Life, written by Jack Elder, Thousand Islands Life Magazine, September 2014.


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Dave Groenendaal
Comment by: Dave Groenendaal
Left at: 4:17 AM Thursday, December 15, 2016
Photo of Border Patrol Boat says Coast Guard. Its Green not Orange. So is it BP or USCG?