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MTFR learns from recovery

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At their Feb. 20 meeting, Miami Township Fire and Rescue Chief Colin Altman told the Township Trustees that a recent search operation in the Clifton Gorge nature preserve had helped him identify a number of areas for the department to work on.

At around 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 4, MTFR received a request for an ambulance for an unknown problem in the Clifton Gorge. The call came in from Xenia dispatch as Altman was on his way to a Township Trustees meeting. From past experience, Altman knew that “unknown problem” probably meant someone was missing, so he detoured to the gorge parking lot where he met his ambulance crew.

It was after dark and four or five sheriff’s deputy cars were parked in the lot when they arrived. When the deputies returned with the person who had called in the emergency, they learned that 64-year-old Beavercreek resident Ronald Rodney, whose vehicle was still in the lot, had been missing since afternoon. The caller was the missing man’s wheelchair-bound son, who had been searching the gorge’s paths by himself.

Altman called in more firefighters and EMTs to aid in the search. That first night of what was to become a five-day ordeal, a total of 19 MTFR personnel assisted at the scene, along with seven or eight deputies and county and state park rangers, Altman told the trustees.

At that point, the situation was considered a rescue operation and search dogs from the Xenia Township and Bellbrook fire departments were brought in. The search went on from 7:30 p.m. until midnight, when it was suspended until the next morning.

“It was dangerous for us to be searching the woods at night,” Altman said when interviewed after the meeting. “We could only walk the paths and look. And the people who were searching were distracting the dogs.”

The next morning Altman met with State of Ohio nature preserve officers and it was established that since it was their park, they would be in charge. Altman had 12 of his people there for the second day of the operation, in addition to four Greene County detectives and 15 people from the Ohio Division of Natural Resources, which oversees the state nature preserves and state parks.

They broke up into four groups to sweep an area 500 feet from the parking lot. Within five minutes, the MTFR group spotted what looked like a body in a deep part of the gorge upriver toward Clifton. The cliffs are 40-feet high at that point and the water was running unusually high and swift, so that identification was difficult.

Given the depth of the gorge at that point and the fact that the current was too swift for a boat or a diver, there was no way to access the body. The search was again suspended at dark without success. For the next two days, the team continued to try to locate the body and devise a way to recover it.

At 11 a.m. on Friday, a hiker on the south side of the river spotted the body about a mile downstream from where it had originally been seen. By that time, the water level had receded. MTFR was again called in to help and they were able to reach the body and retrieve it from the water.

In all, 26 MTFR personnel were involved in the operation for a total of 261 personnel hours, Altman said. Normally, volunteers are given a stipend of $10 per incident, but for long incidents, they are paid by the hour. He estimated the cost to the township in hours, food and fuel to be around $5,500 with an additional $1,000 for rope that was lost or damaged in the operation.

“There is no provision for cost recovery in a situation like this,” Altman said.
Others involved in the operation included State Preserve, Park, Wildlife and Watercraft officers; the Greene County Sheriff’s Department; Greene County park rangers; the Coroner’s Office; the American Red Cross; fire departments from Xenia Township, Cedarville Township, Silvercreek Township, and Bellbrook; the Village of Yellow Springs Road Department and Police Department; and the Miami Township Road Department.

According to Altman, working with all these different agencies in such a large operation was a learning experience.

“It showed us what we did wrong and what we did right,” he said.

Despite past efforts to get all agencies onto the statewide 800 MHZ system, radio communications continued to be a problem. Yellow Springs has a special repeater antenna for which some of the organizations had not programmed their radios. Also, although state and local officers were all on the same frequency, they were using radios from different manufacturers that are not compatible with one another. Radio transmissions from deep in the gorge were intermittent at best, as were cell phone communications.

There were also issues of cooperation between the agencies. After 9/11, a national incident management system was implemented, Altman said. However, some organizations, such as MTFR and ODNR, were more familiar with the system than others. It took a while to establish the command hierarchy, but the agencies eventually worked it out.

“We need to work more proactively with Sheriff Fisher so we understand our roles,” Altman said. “We also need to work toward using the same radio system.”
The incident also highlighted for MTFR the necessity for water rescue training.
“Our rope rescue team needs to be trained in swift water rescue for those situations where we are the first responders,” he said.

While they are not all five-day events, MTFR gets calls like this six or seven times a year, according to Altman.

Villagers can learn from this incident as well, he said. “Our residents tend to look at Glen Helen and the park as their backyard. But there are rugged areas and people can get lost. Bring a cell phone and don’t go out after dark.”


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