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VENTURA COUNTY FOCUS | EAST COUNTY / MOORPARK

Deputies Get Special Pads for Water Rescues

January 23, 1998|REGINA HONG

Those weren't Frisbees that sheriff's deputies were tossing around Thursday at Arroyo Vista Community Park. They were flotation devices.

And what appeared to be fun and games was a drill to prevent drownings in the Arroyo Simi. Nearly two years ago, an 11-year-old Moorpark boy drowned after trying to cross the flood-control channel on his way home from school.

About 30 deputies practiced hurling newly purchased plastic flotation pads after listening to a presentation from the Ventura County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team.

"You come first, that's No. 1," team member Earl Matthews told deputies, who under a new policy now carry the devices in their patrol cars. "It may not make a lot of sense. But if you don't survive, the victim won't survive."

Rather than jumping into a river to save victims and getting swept away, rescue team members said it's better to throw the devices in to help victims stay afloat until trained rescue teams can reach them.

The devices will help officers in Moorpark feel more empowered when they see someone struggling in the water, especially with the memory of 11-year-old Joel Burchfield still fresh in their minds, said Capt. Mike Lewis of the Moorpark Police Department.

"They know the feeling of helplessness," he said. "They learned that from the Joel Burchfield drowning and they want to do something more."

The flotation devices will let the officers help aid the victims without putting themselves at considerable risk.

The water level was low at the Arroyo Simi while the team demonstrated throwing techniques at the spot Joel was believed to be swept away. But even low levels of water can pose danger.

Matthews said six inches of water flowing at 12 mph has enough force to push a child over the dam and cause a drowning in the swirls beneath.

Matthews said he has known many law enforcement agents who have tried to help drowning victims and have slipped into the river themselves. He recalled how a deputy tried to use a bulldozer to save a troop of Boy Scouts during massive flooding in 1969. The water carried away the bulldozer, resulting in the death of the deputy as well as of the youths, he said.

Deputy Charles MacDonald, who still recalls the cold night he roamed up and down the Arroyo Simi in search of Joel, hopes he never finds another child drowning in the river.

"With this [flotation device], it will give us a better chance of saving someone," MacDonald said after practicing his throwing technique.

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