GRFD bolsters river rescue capability with airboat, dive team

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Forget the need for a siren.

You’ll definitely hear the 502-horsepower fan coming as the Grand Rapids Fire Department’s newest rescue tool comes roaring up the Grand River.

Delivered last year, GRFD’s new airboat was custom-built by a Florida company that specializes in boats for rescue and law enforcement.

The biggest advantage over the department’s other rescue boats is that the airboat is pushed by a big fan above the water instead of a propeller under the water. Cofferdams, sandbars, ice — just about anything the Grand throws in the way of a rescue, the boat will handle.

“That will skim over pretty much anything,” said GRFD Battalion Chief Jack Johnson, head of the department’s Special Operations Command.

The airboat is part of an expanding water rescue effort. As plans move forward to restore the rapids, a project that’s expected to add greatly to traffic in and around the river, the new capabilities are expected to save lives.

“At any given point in the construction of that restoration, you don’t really know what it’s going to look like, and we need to be able to have the options and the tools to respond at any point and time to the river,” Johnson said.

While GRFD has always had a river rescue team, its abilities are limited to mostly searching the surface of the water.

“If we had a car that went in to the Grand River and there was a potential for rescue, we didn’t have a good answer other than just figure it out,” Johnson said.

If they can’t get to the victim, the Kent Country Sheriff’s Department Dive Team is called in. That takes additional time. Often, a rescue effort turns to a recovery.

But plans are underway for GRFD to provide advanced water rescues. Along with buying additional rescue equipment, Grand Rapids firefighters are being trained in dive rescue. Crews will respond from their stations, ready to go in and under the water in minutes.

The sheriff’s department is helping Grand Rapids train the divers.

“We’ve got 14 members who have gone through basic dive certification. We’re getting registered for their dive rescue certification in the next six months,” Johnson said. “Our guys are going to be on duty 24/7. We don’t have to call them in from home.”

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