Mehlville Fire unveils new rescue boat with rescue drill


Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

MFPD firefighter-medics David Wideman and Capt. Nick Larosa pull Jared Sarni out of the water during a mock water rescue practice in 2018.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor

The Mehlville Fire Protection District unveiled its new rescue boat this summer, an upgrade that should lead to safer and easier rescues along the district’s 21 miles of river shoreline from Sunset Hills to Oakville.

The new $35,000 boat is not inflatable like the district’s past boats and is wider, more stable and faster on the water than the district’s previous inflatable boats it first acquired after the flood of 1993.

The district borders both the Mississippi and Meramec rivers, but the rescue boat is primarily intended to ensure safer rescues on the Meramec. Since the Mississippi is so large and difficult to navigate, the district has an agreement with a marine company for a larger tugboat when a call on the Mississippi is received, typically around the Jefferson Barracks Bridge.

The district held a drill last week for members of its specially trained boat rescue team, which is stationed at the No. 4 Firehouse on Tesson Ferry Road to be close to the Meramec.


Under a typical scenario, the fire district will receive a call about a boater down in the water. Under the rescue scenario that played out last week, a “victim” — actually boat team firefighter/paramedic Jared Sarni — was stranded in the water with a broken leg and had to be taken out near George Winter Park in Fenton.

As part of the drill scenario, the Zodiac boat went out and also got stranded, requiring backup from the newer rescue boat.

“Most of the time the calls are for a stranded boater, but we take those seriously because if you’re stranded and you’re floating down that river, there’s no telling where you could end up,” said Deputy Chief Ken Snelson, who oversees the team. “So we get on it pretty quick.”

The district has had calls happen right in front of the rescue boat when it’s out for training, with the most recent incident happening on the 4th of July when a jet-skiier wiped out in front of the boat.

Another time, the rescue team came up on an intoxicated boater walking upstream at night trying to catch a pontoon boat that had come unmoored.

As the Meramec becomes more popular, it seems like the calls are increasing as more and more inexperienced people get on the river for recreation.

“You come up here on a Saturday and it’s so heavily used on weekends that you stand here and as somebody goes by maybe they’re sitting on lawn chairs out at the front of a pontoon boat and you’re thinking, ‘Oooh, that’s our next call right there,’” Snelson said.

The district collaborates on rescues with the Fenton, Saline Valley and Rock Community fire districts.

In the past, the district used various staging areas throughout the district and in Flamm City, but the new rescue boat is so fast on the water during timed simulations that district officials figured out it’s quicker to always stage it from the same marina, then go on the river to wherever it’s needed rather than drive to get to a closer marina area.

Behind the scenes at Mehlville Fire rescue drill

When the boat is on its way to a rescue, the victim’s location has to be pinpointed with a drone that is operated by boat team member Roman Stolarski.

The drone returns with an approximate location of the victim, which helps the boat get to the person faster.

Then the boat is loaded into the water from a ramp at a marina in Concord. Boat team members are staffed round-the-clock at the Tesson Ferry firehouse.

“They’re the most trained and spend the most time on the river — 24/7, 365, that boat is ready to go,” Snelson said.

In the past, the district would have come to the rescue in one of its two inflatable rescue boats, called Zodiacs. But those are not as steady or as reliable as the new, customized, sturdier rescue boat, which the Board of Directors unanimously approved the purchase of in February.

This time, the boat was able to get to Sarni despite a low river, which would have been hazardous to the Zodiac.

Firefighter-medic Tyler Robinson jumped in to get Sarni, while inside the boat, firefighter-medic David Wideman and the leader of the operation, Capt. Nick Larosa, got a backboard ready to attach to Sarni, stabilize his leg and pull him into the boat.

“OK, bud, I’m going to slide this underneath you and pull you in, OK?” Larosa said.

Once Sarni was safely in the boat, Larosa radioed, “Victim out of the water.”

A voice responded, “Be advised, your ambulance is on the ramp at the original launch site.”

That launch site is near St. Anthony’s Medical Center.

When the district got its new boat, it expanded its boat team.

The rescue team members commit to a certain number of hours of training per year on top of their normal firefighter-medic duties, Snelson said.

Since boat rescues are fairly infrequent, they go on normal calls until they get a water-related call.

“You’re going to have to commit to so many hours of training a year and you’re going to be on that river,” Snelson said. “And when you get a call, it’s one of those calls that’s infrequent, but it’s usually high risk. And we need people that are trained, period.  And they have to be very dedicated.”