Life Is Swells

Swift-water rescues are just a day’s work for this team

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

coltechrescue0312Mike Cannon is the head of Colchester Technical Rescue, a group of 25 committed volunteers formed in 1989 as an independent sub-department of Colchester Rescue.

An obvious but unfortunate dichotomy becomes clear when the subject of the creation of Colchester Technical Rescue comes up: This acclaimed group of 25 volunteers, now operating as a separate sub-department of Colchester Rescue, had it roots in disaster.

Mike Cannon, who heads the technical rescue team, cringes as he calls it “dumb luck” that Malletts Bay experienced a spate of accidental deaths in 1987 and ’88 that caught the attention of the Colchester Police Department.

Two subsequent things occurred in tandem. The rescue squad — for which Cannon had volunteered since 1974 — formed the technical rescue team in 1989.

Around the same time, the police department — which happens to be where Cannon has his day job — launched its marine program. When the decision was made by the department to staff a boat on Malletts Bay full time, Cannon, a recently promoted corporal with boating knowledge, was chosen for the job.

He was a natural. His father was a Burlington firefighter for 38 years. Cannon joined Colchester Rescue as a junior member when he was a student at Burlington High School.

After earning his associate’s degree in criminal justice from Champlain College, later supplemented with training at Trinity, he joined the Burlington Police Department in 1978.

The job took him to Fletcher Allen Health Care, where his future wife, Suzanne Elliott, MD, worked in the poison control center. She’s now an emergency room physician there.

He soon became frustrated by a staffing shortage in Burlington, which meant “two to three police officers were covering the whole city.”

In 1980, he took a job with Essex for a year and, in 1981, joined the Colchester force, where he knew most of the officers because of his work with the rescue squad.

Fast-forward to that accident-riddled period of 1987-88, when, according to Cannon, “the water rescue/dive rescue thing had pretty much just started everywhere across the nation. Again, dumb luck was on our side.”

That meant professional training by public safety divers was available for the six divers on the team who had worked until then with only recreational certification. “We sent some of them away to schools outside of Vermont, and we wrote our guidelines with Dive Rescue International Corp. in Colorado.”

In the beginning, he says, when a call would come in, “we’d throw a stretcher out of an ambulance, throw in all our gear, and head down the road, everybody sitting on a pile of dive bags, and scuba tanks rolling around in the back of the ambulance.”

By the mid-1990s, the team had grown to about a dozen, with a core group of eight divers who were pretty well trained in deep-water, swift-water, and rope rescue. Safer transportation was needed.

That came in the form of an Army-surplus van the town bought through a military program. It was converted into a dive van.

The team acquired a small rubber inflatable boat, a motor, and a homemade trailer. A second vehicle — a large ambulance — was added after the ice storm of 1998 proved too much for one of the town’s ambulances.

They began a working relationship with Stowe Mountain Rescue in the mid ’90s when they were called to Smugglers Notch to help with a rescue that had injured one of the Stowe volunteers. Nowadays, each team backs up the other, and every five years they train together out of state.

By 2001, “the team had grown to 20 people and the state was using us pretty regularly for missing-person calls, underwater calls, and at these tricky mountain rivers and gorges,” says Cannon. “We were being called so often, we started realizing we didn’t have enough volunteers to adequately respond.”

A decision was made to increase the number of volunteers to 25 and ask the state to begin outfitting other agencies to back up Colchester and Stowe. That brought the Johnson and Hartford fire departments on line.

Just before Sept. 11, 2001, the four teams received written memorandums of understanding from the state identifying them as public safety assets. This allowed them to be activated during emergencies, and be reimbursed for their time and equipment.

Post 9/11, when Homeland Security money became available to ensure that first-responders were better prepared, Colchester Technical Rescue was one of the first agencies to receive grant money, used to buy a pickup truck. Subsequent grants have helped with equipment purchases.

Calls, says Cannon, range from lost or missing people “in the back country or water or just missing in general. Probably 70 percent of our calls center around some type of water environment.”

The use of high-tech equipment bought in the last few years — about a half dozen underwater cameras, sonar, and two remote underwater vehicles (ROVs), for example — has made their work safer.

“In technical areas where it’s maybe too risky to put divers in, or too large an area to search, we’ll use this sophisticated equipment. A lot of teams don’t have that,” Cannon says. “We realize that this equipment really helps us, because it can make a very difficult dive easy if you drop in a camera or an ROV or use a sonar unit to paint a picture of what’s down there.”

In 2005, education was standardized across the state through the Vermont Fire Academy, funded by Homeland Security. “There are now 11 departments, and in the event of a large-scale disaster, we can come together as a large-scale unit and operate comfortably.”

Since 2005, the team has purchased a trailer outfitted with most of the big technical equipment needed in case of that large-scale disaster. “There’s another trailer in Hartford,” Cannon says. “They cover the southern part of the state, and we cover the northern part.”

Although the Technical Rescue Team is all volunteers, Colchester Rescue’s emergency medical service is staffed 24 hours a day: with volunteers from 6 at night to 6 in the morning, and paid staff from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. They field calls for both organizations.

“On the business side, we’re a municipal entity,” says Cannon. “The rescue chief answers to the town manager. They give us $38,000 a year, plus the land and the building.”

The rescue chief is Amy Akerlind, and Cannon answers to her. Interestingly, Cannon was her predecessor —paid as a part-time rescue chief for five years. “It was a very good experience, but we were trying to tell the town they had a couple of paid staff members with a volunteer trying to manage them. Amy was the first full-time rescue chief they hired.”

Until two years ago, both groups used the same quarters, but the technical rescue team’s vehicles were out in the weather.

A fund drive was started in the community. With a combination of several large gifts from community members, a town contribution of $60,000, and a lot of in-kind donations, the building went up, and the team moved in just before Hurricane Irene hit the state.

“That was the first real emergency where our large equipment trailer went out the door and served its purpose,” says Cannon. The team had spent five days with the state planning for the possibility that the storm track would come this way. “Sunday morning we went out the door about 7 a.m. and came back the following Friday at 3 in the afternoon,” says Cannon.

They were dispatched to pre-stage in Brattleboro, but by the time they arrived, a pre-evacuation had been done, he says, “and we had to get out of there or we would have been stuck for the entire length of the storm.”

From the state highway garage in Dummerston, they chased the storm north. “We went out the door with 14 people and two boats and did about 80 evacuations of people stuck in houses on the second floor or in mobile home parks or vehicles,” he says.

He estimates the team made a life-saving difference for eight people, who would have died without the team’s intervention. The most memorable of those was the rescue of a firefighter who had been swept down the river and was stuck in a tree in Berlin.

The team has more than 24 scheduled trainings a year, including mandatory dive skills and rope skills assessment training. Because of the high degree of training needed, it’s fortunate that team members tend to stick around.

They come from all walks of life: career firefighters, police officers (city and federal) federal police officers, customs enforcement officers, a team physician who runs with the team, a veterinary surgeon, engineers, medical students, nurses, paramedics, a land surveyor, game wardens, “you name it,” he says. “Twenty people on the team have medical certification from the state.”

When he needs to make a purchase, Cannon draws a purchase order or a credit card from the town. The town provides the uniforms, although volunteers occasionally buy necessities, such as ice crampons, that the town might not be able to afford.

Two other Colchester police officers are on the team. The police department’s contribution, says Cannon, is to allow him and these officers to answer rescue calls, even when they’re on duty, if there’s adequate staffing.

Cannon’s day job and his volunteer work definitely cross platforms. His job with the department has him in the boat on the bay every day from mid May through September. Hot, dry summers find people mixing alcohol and boating, he says. Hot, rainy summers mean trouble for the technical team in the rivers and swimming holes.

The group fields 40 to 50 calls a year, across the calendar. January, for example, brought a number of calls about people lost or injured in the woods, and a suicide attempt on the Winooski bridge.

He and Suzanne live in Colchester. Both work rotating shifts, leaving little time for joint recreation.

Cannon has had no promotions since becoming a corporal in 1989. He’s passed up the last three or four processes to stay in the marine program. To be promoted would mean leaving the marine program “and be stuck behind a desk.” •