Sumner County Special Operations Team responds to increasing number of water calls

Posted at 4:15 PM, Jul 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-29 09:45:27-04

SUMNER COUNTY, Tenn. (WTVF) — Staying safe on the road is getting more difficult in one Middle Tennessee county that’s prone to flooding.

Sumner County Emergency Management Agency Director Ken Weidner said he's received more calls for water rescues in the past 10 years than in the 25 years before that.

In fact, just since 2015 the recently formed Special Operations Team has responded to 25 calls for water rescues in the area.

The team was formed to respond to increasing number of water rescue calls.

On Old Hickory Lake in Gallatin the team helped train some of its six newest members in the heat of summer. After classroom time, they headed to the water, with some of the team’s 10 boats and additional inflatable rafts towing behind them.

The stakes are high and time is short when someone is trapped in their car while flood waters rise.

“Our team members have really got to know what they’re doing,” Weidner said.

The 30 members are firefighters, deputies, EMS and EMA members by day, but when the forecast includes the possibility of flooding, they’re on standby ready to answer emergency calls.

“We talk a lot to [NewsChannel 5 Meteorologist] Bree Smith and the National Weather Service,” Weidner said.

It’s the largest Special Operations team roster they've ever had. Because in Sumner County these days, when it rains it often floods.

“Sumner, we've been hit hard here lately,” Weidner said.

NewsChannel 5 Meteorologist Lelan Statom said the biggest factor is likely the increase in heavy rain events, but factors like the population growth in the county and additional construction that has reduced the amount of land to handle runoffs may also play a role. Concrete is much less effective as a flood mitigation than soil.

“It seems like always we’re having flood waters come up and somebody’s in a car trapped,” said Tyler Weidner, Ken Weidner's son, who works on an ambulance based in Gallatin and is a member of the Special Operations Team.

Tyler Weidner says February was particularly bad. He says he responded to water calls five times already this year.

Sometimes it’s someone who doesn't follow the Turn Around Don’t Drown mantra, but sometimes the water rises so quickly it simply overtakes a vehicle before a driver can react.

During training, Tyler and other team members acquaint themselves with each boat, how it works, and practice skills like grabbing a person out of the water.

“We’re taught to reach, throw, row, go,” he said. "That’s if you can reach the victim, reach ‘em. If you can’t, throw a rope to them. If you can’t do that, go in a boat to them and your last option is to swim.”

He was one of the team members who responded to the school bus that was overtaken by flash flood waters in 2017.

“That was the largest call we ever had,” he recalled, shaking his head.

That day, the team rescued 17 students and the driver, who they said did the right thing by turning around but got trapped by flash flooding.

With roads flooded, it can sometimes take a while for the team to get to someone they’re trying to rescue.

And emergency crews say if you ever find yourself trapped in your car with water rising, you can help yourself before they get there.

A spring loaded hole punch costs around $10. If you keep one in your car, you can use it to punch through a tempered glass window in the event you can’t open your door.

Recent studies by AAA show that spring loaded tools are the most effective to break free from a vehicle when you’re trapped. Most car models have at least one side window that is tempered, or breakable. Many windshields are made from laminated glass which is almost unbreakable in order to cut down on ejections during crashes.

Check the label on the bottom corner of your window or contact your car’s manufacturer so you know which window is breakable before the need arises.

Getting out of your car quickly is important if you drive into deep water that doesn't have a strong current. But if it's a swift water situation, it can be safer to wait on first responders to get you out with life jackets and other safety equipment.

Thanks to Hilltop Auto Salvage for help with this story.