By Yoona Ha, FireRescueOne BrandFocus Staff
When heavy rains battered the hillsides of California’s Santa Barbara County in January, 2018, a torrent of mud overtook numerous homes. Lt. Brian Thielst of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department/ Special Enforcement Team (SWAT) saw the destructive force of these mudslides in action and knew he had to act fast. The surge of mud and debris devastated communities like Montecito, where several homes were destroyed and a gas line rupture caused several structure fires.
“When we realized how bad the situation was we activated our SWAT team, who brought brand-new BearCat vehicles from Lenco, which we used for the next several days to rescue and evacuate people and pets from the debris flow,” said Thielst.
The reality was that many of the regular fire and rescue vehicles were having difficulties getting into the areas where people were stranded. But the BearCat MedEvac G3, an armored vehicle with an optional water nozzle, can not only get into hard-to-reach areas but can also forge through tough terrain, including several feet of water and mud. The BearCat also has a custom water fording kit that allows first responders to go through up to 40 inches of water.
MANAGING TOUGH TERRAIN
Unlike a fire apparatus, the BearCat MedEvac G3 has off-road tires, wheels and run flats that allow the vehicle to navigate off-road environments with underdeveloped – or sometimes nonexistent – roads.
“We were really impressed by the capabilities of the vehicle,” said Thielst, “and some people were definitely surprised by how we used them for the debris flow incident.”
As Thielst and his team can tell you, unexpected natural disasters like the deadly California mudslides require incident commanders to think outside of the box. In this case, Thielst knew that a fire truck wasn’t nimble or flexible enough to withstand the rescue efforts that were required to save more than dozens of people from dangerous mudslides.
“Sometimes you can’t rely on old strategies and tactics to respond to incidents like this,” said John Buckman III, a retired fire chief and member of the FireRescue1 & Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. “When you’re dealing with a natural disaster, having the situational awareness to read the situation, analyze the facts, project the probabilities and make a decision is important.”
NOT JUST FOR SWAT ANYMORE
While the Lenco BearCat has earned a reputation for being the go-to armored vehicle for police and special operations units, it also suits the needs of first responders who need every level of protection available to focus on saving lives. Recent incidents like the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, highlight the growing need for firefighters and EMS staffers to train and prepare for mass casualty incidents and active shooter scenarios.
“We know that SWAT teams have been utilizing tactical medics and increasingly cross-train with fire departments to prepare for active shooter and mass casualty events; and deal with natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding and other severe weather events” said Len Light, president of Lenco Armored Vehicles. “The BearCat enables firefighters and first responders to quickly respond to these life-threatening situations with a tool that enables them to perform their jobs safely, effectively and efficiently. The BearCat has proven itself to be an invaluable community asset time and time again.”
The BearCat MedEvac G3 fits 10-12 fully equipped firefighters, has on-board oxygen tanks, can hold up to two litters, ample compartments for medical supplies, a light work station and an adjustable fog nozzle. It also has a rescue hatch and an optional thermal camera that can be used during search and rescue missions at any time of the day.
“As firefighters, we need to review what others [like Thielst] have gone through and learn from that experience,” said Buckman. He added that while change in the fire service industry is slow, dramatic events like the California mudslides often bring tools like the BearCat to the forefront.
MULTIPLE EMERGENCY RESPONSE APPLICATIONS
Not surprisingly, an increasing number of Fire Chiefs have argued for the purchase of a BearCat vehicle to not only protect first responders, but also aid the active shooter training efforts that the city has gone through in light of the Las Vegas mass shooting incident in 2017.
“The BearCat has some impressive capabilities, and even before the debris flow incident we used the vehicles to respond to a huge fire, which shows that these vehicles can be used in a variety of dangerous situations,” said Thielst. “The BearCat’s performance really speaks for itself.”
Responding to the unexpected is an integral part of a firefighter’s job, which requires firefighters to strategically analyze and address the threats at hand. Having the right personnel in the right place at the right time is important, but what can truly make a difference is having the right tools and vehicles that can help you address the complexities of any mission.