A vast network of canals stretch like veins off the Colorado River. They provide water to communities hundreds of miles away and nourish the region’s vibrant agricultural industry.
But the often muddy and fast flowing canals can be a “death trap” for those who venture too close.
KAWC’s Stephanie Sanchez introduces us to the first responders responsible for dangerous canal rescues.
A family van has slipped into the murky waters of a canal near Parker. Inside, children and adults have minutes, perhaps only seconds, to get themselves out of the sinking vehicle or to be rescued.
A few hundred feet down, a group of divers stretch across the canal waters preparing to submerge. They are looking for the van but don’t know where it is in the cloudy waters.
The divers are public safety professionals from agencies across La Paz County.
The firefighters, paramedics, and other first-responders are gathered early in the morning near Parker to take part in an annual water emergency and rescue training. The van was placed into the water with advanced divers playing the victims inside.
Guy Nelson of the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office is the lead instructor.
“We’re working now boys, we’re at work, we’re not practicing, we’re not playing. We’re professionals right?" he said. "I already see a sloppy interval, get that line tight! Tighten up the line! let’s be pros now!"
The students have formed an underwater human chain across the canal. An on-shore guide holds the rope line connecting them.
Nelson said this training is dangerous. Visibility is low for the underwater rescuers.
"We want to challenge them but we want to have stress inoculation so that it’s frightening but it’s safe," Nelson said.
Water rescues may not be the first thing people think of when it comes to the public safety needs of La Paz County. But Nelson said rescuers are needed a few times a year.
Today divers are training at the site of a previous rescue operation.
“We’re hoping that they will find the van quickly and then tie off the rope to the van which gives them access to the surface so we don’t have to find the van twice," Nelson said. "Otherwise we're searching over and over again.”
Once the van is located, the divers work to get the victims out of the vehicle and the canal’s current. They are brought to shore for medical assessment.
The Buckskin Fire Department and La Paz County Sheriff’s Office have been running the joint dive and rescue program for over 30 years.
Leadership is made up of local firefighters and police officers who volunteer their time.
A rescue course like this tends to cost over a thousand dollars, but with the help of corporate sponsors through the years, today’s cost is about $175 dollars per student. It’s a new challenge for some of these trainees.
Ehrenberg Fire Department firefighter Ciara Mejia was among the 14 program participants.
"I think it’s awesome, very informative," Mejia said. "I had trouble doing the serpentine, it’s the navigation part of it, it’s kind of challenging."
Savannah Wilson also from EFD had a similar experience.
"Just getting a hold of that car cause you are going so fast by it" Wilson said ."It’s like you can blow right past it if you are not paying attention.
Steve Reeder of the Buckskin Fire Department said it is good to practice and train with other county first responders.
"I feel like I have to learn still for sure. Practice and experience, it only takes time, definitely need a lot more of that," Reeder said. "We can always learn. Even the best of the divers say they can learn more."
Students completed a second rescue scenario around mid-day and then debriefed on their performance.
Next they’ll practice rescues in the Colorado River, where the waters will be deeper and the current stronger.
Today’s rescue simulations wrap up, instructor Guy Nelson, notices a group of teenagers swimming in the canal.
“It’s not illegal, so as law enforcement all we can do is say hey guys it’s a bad idea," he said.
But Nelson notes his team is mostly called out to recover bodies. He wishes more people understood the dangers of venturing into local canals.