116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Already in 2022, the Cedar Rapids Fire Department has pulled three people out of the Cedar River in the downtown area. A fourth, a city employee, was believed to have driven into the river farther upstream in May and hasn’t been found.
Cedar Rapids Fire Capt. Josh Jensen, one of several trained water rescue technicians in the department, has been a large part of developing the water rescue tactics and training the city uses in such cases. He’s also not the first member of his family to contribute to the program.
Jensen’s father, Gary Jensen, was a firefighter in Cedar Rapids from 1977 to 2011 and was instrumental in moving the water rescue program along before he retired, the younger Jensen said. When Josh Jensen joined the department in 2006, it already had multiple boats and the capability to track down those who were lost in water-related incidents.
“We had a couple of boats, but in all honesty, earlier iterations of the fire department were more recovery-based. We were not trained to go after the actively drowning person, but we’ve got a big river through the city,” he said. “It gets a lot of recreational use, and we had to prepare ourselves for anything that the citizen could encounter.”
When Jensen joined, the department was just starting to look for ways to address this gap and prepare to rescue people from drowning. Jensen and a few others started taking classes, including visiting Colorado to train with other water rescue professionals on swift-water courses. Those training opportunities resulted in the fire department expanding its arsenal to include smaller, soft-sided boats, which are used now for quick rescues.
“I am kind of the shepherd of the day-to-day activities for our boats. I check the boats every day, make sure that we have gas in all the boats, make sure that they're inflated correctly, make sure that they're ready to go out the door and that all the ropes are checked, make sure all the equipment is ready to go. It’s kind of a thankless job to be honest with you, but it's something that interests me a lot,” Jensen said.
Of the people who went into the Cedar River so far this year, two went into the water at the Second Avenue Bridge. In both those cases, the water rescue team was able to get the victim into a boat before he reached the 12th Avenue Bridge, which is about a five minute response time.
“Being able to do that, that’s really being organized and really ready,” Jensen said.
Another man, Erik Spaw, a city water department employee whose truck was found last month in the river, still is missing, though Jensen said the department regularly searches for him.
The fire department offers yearly trainings on general water rescue tactics for all firefighters, but those who usually respond to water emergencies are those who, like Jensen, have chosen to do additional training to become water rescue technicians. Most of those trainings are now offered in-house at the fire department.
“Technician level training are the folks that are going to be operating the boats or performing a go rescue … that's where you may have to actually jump out of a boat or jump off the shore, swim to the victim, grab the victim and then you’re hauled in on a haul line back to the boat or to the shore,” Jensen said.
The department usually has between four and six people with technician level training on the clock at any given time. Jensen said it’s not uncommon for the department to be called for water rescues or other water emergencies more than 30 times in a summer.
“When we talk about all the Special Operations disciplines, water rescue is probably the most frequently used,” Jensen said.
To stay safe on the river this summer, Jensen recommends people check boats to make sure they are reliable before taking them out and always wear a life jacket or personal flotation device. The rule at the fire department is to wear a life jacket anytime firefighters are within 10 feet of the river.
Jensen also recommends avoiding alcohol, especially when driving a boat, but even when riding along as a passenger.
“Water needs to be respected. The amount of power and force that water has on a person or an object is immense and folks just don’t understand how unrelenting and uncaring the river can be,” Jensen said. “(The Cedar River) is not the widest river in the world, but the current rates and the flow rates are comparable to the Mississippi River. It’s a very fast-moving body of water”
According to the Cedar Rapids municipal code, it is illegal to swim in the Cedar River anywhere within the boundaries of the city. Other activities, like fishing, skiing, kayaking and other water sports, are not specifically prohibited.
One of the most dangerous parts of the river, according to Jensen, is the roller dam in southwest Cedar Rapids. The way the dam is designed, anything that goes over it will likely get sucked back.
“We call the roller dam the drowning machine. … It creates a recirculating current, like a washing machine … and frankly there is almost no way to get out of there. It will drown you,” Jensen said. “I’ll go into a burning building every day … before I would want to go tangle with that low-head dam. It is extremely dangerous. It’s probably one of the most dangerous things we do,” Jensen said.
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