Bedford Fire department and others host swift water flood rescue drill as if for 500-year flood

A massive helicopter hovered above the treetops, then landed in a Bedford field, thus becoming part of a rigorous, swift water flood training exercise held with participation from a multitude of local, state and federal agencies on April 10.

The chopper that descended carried a crew from the New Hampshire National Guard and representatives of other departments. Some of those disembarking documented live video of dozens of replicated rescues from the island and elsewhere.

Merrimack Fire Chief Michael Currier, stationed at the command center, studied the action captured remotely at the scene. He later credited all involved for bringing together a drill that was educational, professional and valuable in assessing future responses, rescue plans and the collateral management of related issues including railroad, boat and vehicle traffic in the flood zone at the time of the emergency.

“I thought the drill went very well,” Currier said. “There was a lot of information learned. We answered a lot of ‘What if?’ questions. The event was very positive.”

Brian Borneman, assistant fire chief for Merrimack, concurred. He added congratulations to Bedford’s fire department for expanding upon a swift water training program that has matured over several years.

“This has been a three- to five-year program for them,” Borneman said. “We know from the Merrimack’s past that a flood like this could happen, sooner or later. The integration of assets is good, anytime. You want to be ready.”

The chopper landing that kicked off the exercises settled down across from FrizzHome Gardens, 270 Back River Road in Bedford. It cleared in its prop wash a swirling halo of desiccated oak leaves, pebbles and other residue of a harsh winter. The bird landed lightly as a van filled with other Guard members and exercise participants arrived for a briefing with the chopper’s crew before action at the river commenced.

The day-long swift water drill replicated the response that would be required should the region experience a flood of the type seen perhaps once every 500 years. The 500-year flood drill scenario forecast water rising some 30 feet above normal. Rescue personnel, water craft, search dogs, the helicopter crew and teams of responders, observers and evaluators from New Hampshire and elsewhere were there to augment their skills.

Bedford’s Bill Jennings, station manager of Bedford Community Television, and Coleen Richardson, assistant station manager, coordinated a contingent of media representatives that arrived to report on the exercise. Scott Hunter, of the Bedford Fire Department, fielded questions from participants and bystanders in his role as public information officer.

A water temperature in the Merrimack River of 33 degrees and a heavy volume of water from tons of melted snow made the environment a challenging one. The river runs 117 miles between Franklin at the joining of the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers and the river’s final destination, the Atlantic Ocean.

Bedford’s Ben Selleck was on-hand with Lt. John Leary and others who coordinated the drill. Selleck is the fire department’s swift water training team leader. The training drills were established several years ago with funds of more than $100,000 from a Homeland Security grant.

The men warned that hazards abound, even on a mild day. Selleck mentioned fast-moving debris in the water. He warned to check clothing and exposed skin for ticks. Leary cautioned that wildlife is a part of the habitat and that mud and difficult footing called for awareness. Both encouraged the wearing of eye protection. They concurred that if anyone heard a mayday call for help, it was for a real emergency and not a part of the drill.

Bedford Fire Chief Scott Wiggin deemed the event a very successful drill, three years in the making.

“It brought in multiple resources from all around the state and beyond,” Wiggin said. “There was a Vermont team and people from West Virginia. The National Guard was very active in the training.”

He praised the high level of safety awareness that accompanied all the actions that day. There were times when gusts buffeted the rescue boats and the helicopter. The pilots of the water craft could be seen compensating for the fast-flowing river by adjusting their direction of approach as they neared the island. Victims were represented by white flags. The flags were collected and rushed to shore.

“The amount of resources that was deployed in the river always had a potential for the risk of injury, especially with how high and fast the water was moving that day,” Wiggin added. “Considering there were no injuries that day, it was a very successful event.”

Dozens of groups and organizations, coordinated by the town of Bedford’s Fire Department, FEMA, and New Hampshire Homeland Security and Emergency Management, included many renowned for their rescue skills.

Participants included Bedford Fire Department, Merrimack Fire Department, Souhegan Mutual Aid Response team, Manchester Fire Department, Lakes Region Mutual Aid, Keene Fire Department, Three Rivers Water Extrication Team (WET), Pemi Valley WET, Canine Alert Search Team, Seacoast Incident Management Team, Vermont Swiftwater Rescue Team, New York Swiftwater Rescue Team, N.H. Fish & Game, N.H. State Police and its Marine Patrol, the N.H. Fire Marshal’s Office, N.H. Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the N.H. Army National Guard and others.

Perry Plummer, New Hampshire’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, watched from the river bank as responders in boats from Bedford, Merrimack, Manchester, Goffstown and elsewhere went about their duties.

Plummer said the drill elevated the level of preparedness that is in place for dealing with a disaster, such as a flood of the magnitude envisioned in the exercises held that day.

“Bedford has done a great job of coordinating this (drill),” Plummer said. “This is a step up in completing the first responders’ mission of making our state safer.”

Scott Hunter, a Bedford Fire Department inspector whose regular duties are related to fire prevention and inspections, called the drill unprecedented. He said a drill of this size called for participants from within New Hampshire and from out of the state.

“Our state of readiness will be higher for this,” Hunter said. “We’ll need analysis. How is Bedford ready? What are we not prepared for? This is what today was all about.”

For more information on the 500-year flood drill exercise hosted on April 10 by the Bedford Fire Department, call the department’s office: 472-3219.