State Police teams practice water rescues on Keuka Lake

Gwen Chamberlain
Brian Brass of Corning is in the helicopter assisting the diver dropping into the water to help a “victim.”

New York State Police from Troops A and E who are members of the scuba and aviation teams met at Keuka Lake State Park's boat launch for training on Aug. 14.

Helicopter pilot Greg Vaillancourt from Troop A in Batavia, said the aviation team participates in routine hoist training every month, and a couple of times each year they meet with scuba teams to practice the water rescues.

This isn't the type of rescue you'd be likely to see in any of the Finger Lakes, stresses Don Will of the Dundee barracks, but Keuka Lake was a good place to meet. In the past, they have done the training on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Anyone in particular navigation trouble on one of the Finger Lakes would likely be rescued by local law enforcement in a patrol vessel, explains Will.

Among the handful of spectators who gathered to watch the training were Kohlar and Keira Brass with their mom, Angie. The three drove up from Corning to watch dad, Brian Brass, a member of the Special Operations Response Team (SORT), as he manned the equipment that lifted the victims from the water.

As the helicopter slowly glided past the shoreline out to the water, Brian waved to his son and daughter through the open door, and Kohlar yelled, "Hi dad!"

Members of the scuba teams took turns as victims, slipping into Keuka's 77 degree water from a state police dive boat, then waited as the helicopter slowly made its way toward them, and lowered to within about 5 feet from the surface. A rescuer jumped into the water, and assisted the victim into the harness that would pull him to the aircraft while the helicopter circled around to get into position again.

A stiff west wind seemed to pose a challenge, but difficult weather conditions would likely be part of the scenario in a rescue as well.

Once the "victim" was attached to the cable, and lifted into the helicopter, he was brought back to dry ground. He traded places with the next "rescuer" as the previous "rescuer" remained in the water playing the part of the "victim."

Although Steve Austin, one of the Troop A scuba team members has never had to perform such a water rescue in his 18 months on the team, he says the team has responded to several calls in Letchworth State Park and Zoar Valley in Cattaraugus County.

Austin and Will said anyone who finds themselves in a situation where they might need one of the team's assistance should call 911 immediately if that's possible, and then the most important thing to remember is to not panic.

"Panic is your worst enemy," says Will.

Between the two Troops, the teams cover an area spanning from Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Pennsylvania border to the western edges of Cayuga, Schuyler and Chemung Counties.

The Scuba teams are on call 24 hours per day, and provide their specialized services to communities and enforcement agencies across the state. When not assigned to a dive detail, the officers perform regular patrol and administrative duties.

The State Police aviation units are located in five stations, including Batavia at the Genesee County Airport. All stations can provide law enforcement support, search and rescue and medical evacuation services.

SORT provide specialized services through four regional teams.