New boat to aid in low head dam rescues in Shelby County

SHELBY COUNTY, Ind.-- From a distance, the boat Shelby County Water Rescue Team members trained on Wednesday looks like a recreational vehicle, but it's anything but that.

They say the the Creature Craft boat is the first of its kind in Indiana to be used as a rescue boat, and one they hope helps save lives during low head dam rescues. They first spotted it at a conference two years ago, and are now getting ready to use it during any rescues this summer.

"It's proved its worth, just in training, just what we've seen with this boat," said Heath Dillon, a firefighter and paramedic with the Shelbyville Fire Department.

The boat was dedicated to one of Indiana DNR's own, First Sgt. Karl Kelley. He died in the line of duty 20 years ago after helping other rescuers in need during a training exercise at a dam.  The Shelby County Water Rescue Team said Kelley played a major role in getting the team started, and that his passion about water rescue stays with the team today.

"Karl is a very special person, he grew up in our county and is from Shelby County," Shelbyville Fire Lt. Jerad Parker said.

Now, they train with his memory in mind and in hopes of preventing anyone else from losing their life. State data shows 11 people died in low dead dam incidents from 2013-2017 in Indiana.

"We feel like this boat gives us a new opportunity to be more efficient at those rescues, but in a much safer fashion that we ever had before," Parker said.

From the time the trailer with the boat arrives on scene to the time the boat is in the water, rescuers said it could cut the response time in half.

Once on the water, Parker said they would typically use two boats tethered together during a low head dam rescue.

"Two boat tether rescues are dangerous, there's no rescue that's not dangerous at that point when you're talking about swift moving water, it's very powerful. The two boat tether it ties up a lot more people, it's a little longer to set up, the people, where the rescuers in the boat closest to the dam face, they face a lot more danger especially if they get over the boil line or into the face of a dam in a regular boat. A regular boat will fill with water," said team member and Shelby County Sheriff's Deputy Ian Michael.

With the new boat, though, the team says the harnesses strapping them in and design of the top of the boat will prevent it from filling with water and them from going under if it were to flip.

"With this boat we can actually get closer to the dam face itself and inside the boil line where the victim is actually going to be, which is safer for us, quicker for them, and when it comes to rescue speed's always, the quicker the better," Michael said.

But the boat isn't something they want to have to use. They remind you to stay away from low head dams.

"The problem with low head dams is that when you're upstream and just having a nice day on the water, you can't visually see that from being at the water level so it's a very dangerous situation. And you get so close so you don't have enough time to react to be able to remove yourself from harm and that's where we find people have gotten in trouble," Parker said.

The dams are hard to see, powerful and deadly. That's why first responders say before you go out on the water, you need to have a plan. You should know where any obstacles or dams are and avoid them, pack first aid and survival kits, have a cell phone in a dry bag, tell someone where you are going to be, know water levels and stay off the water when it is high or after it's rained, and wear a life jacket.

You can see a map of low head dams here. For more information on low head dams and safety surrounding them click here and here.

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