Digging Deeper: Below the Surface - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Digging Deeper: Below the Surface


Wisconsin (WQOW) - Nestled at the confluence of two rivers, Eau Claire has become a top spot for water enthusiasts. However, as more people take a dip into the water, Eau Claire fire crews are using extra resources just to keep people alive. 

As the rivers flow, so do the feelings of peace and serenity for water enthusiasts in Eau Claire.

"One of the things that makes our city really beautiful is the river systems and the water we have available," said Eau Claire firefighter and member of the Water Safety Task Force Dave Whitehouse. 

However, the tide can turn in a hurry. As more people dip their feet into the water, the more rescue missions area fire departments respond to.

"We want to see people enjoy that beauty, but at the same time do it while they're being safe," Whitehouse said.

For example, the Eau Claire Fire Department has responded to 11 water rescues already in 2017 (as of Sept. 11.) That's on pace to beat 2016' number of 12. The department only responded to 23 rescues in the previous three years combined, with 9 being the most in any single given year.

  • 2013: 7
  • 2014: 9
  • 2015: 7
  • 2016: 12

"Water rescue is one where it is impossible for us to remove almost any of the risk," Whitehouse said. "So, our training scenarios and our training sessions involve the same dangers that we would find in a real live emergency."

The price tag isn't small either. One crew, of three people, costs local communities more than $1,100 per 8-hour day, and with some rescues taking several days, the dollars and cents add up in a hurry. It's something Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk knows about all too well after his crews spent several days in late August on the wicked waters of the Chippewa River.

"It's time consuming, and all searchers hope that immediately they find the person that was involved in the unfortunate accident, but you know it takes time," Kowalczyk said.

Price and time are not the only concerns for rescuers; safety is also top of mind. 

"We're building in the safety factor not only for our rescuers, but also that patient that is involved in the rescue," said Eau Claire Fire Lt. Matt Gunderson. "We need to get them up as safely as we can to prevent any further injury."
So, as you enjoy the final weeks of open water in Wisconsin, before the city of clear water freezes over, the fire department has a reminder, and it's one you've likely heard before.

"Wear a life jacket," Whitehouse pleaded. "A life jacket is one thing that can guarantee your chance of survival is going to increase. Chances are, not only is it going to increase your chance of survival, it will virtually eliminate your chance of drowning."

Fire officials told News 18 most of their rescues are during the summer months, but they also want to give an early reminder to be careful of changing ice conditions once temperatures drop off. They said that's another time of year they are extra concerned about river and lake conditions. 

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