Public Safety

Drone saved time, and perhaps calamity, in rescue of kayakers

Decorah crew seeing more rescues this year on Upper Iowa River

Bluffs tower over the Upper Iowa River near Decorah, with Chimney Rock in the distance. Decorah firefighters — with some help from a drone — came to the aid Tuesday of 11 kayakers stranded on the river. (B.A. Morelli/The Gazette)
Bluffs tower over the Upper Iowa River near Decorah, with Chimney Rock in the distance. Decorah firefighters — with some help from a drone — came to the aid Tuesday of 11 kayakers stranded on the river. (B.A. Morelli/The Gazette)

A rescue of 11 kayakers — like the one Tuesday afternoon on the Upper Iowa River — usually would take Decorah volunteer firefighters one or two hours.

But thanks to drone technology, it took only three or four minutes to locate the stranded kayakers, said Zach Kerndt, whose duties with the fire department include being a licensed drone operator.

Before drones, “we’d have to go up river and basically get on the river and actually flow down the river to find them,” Kerndt said Thursday. “With the drone, we’re able to put it up in the air without putting anyone in harm’s way. ... It helps a lot.”

He said the rapid response could be lifesaving.

“It helps tremendously,” Kerndt said, specifically mentioning how a drone provides rescuers with a better “overall view of the area.”

Crews came to the aid Tuesday of a family of kayakers who became marooned on an island near Chimney Rock Park after a kayak capsized and left one family member clinging to a tree, authorities said.

Decorah bought a drone in 2016 to help with structure fires, grass fires, search-and-rescue operations and other law enforcement tasks. Since then, Kerndt said, the department has used it on four or five river rescues.

River rescues have been increasingly common for the Decorah department.

Firefighters typically handle four or five river rescues each year but have performed four already this year.

It’s a sign, Kerndt said, people need to be more careful on the water.

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“We want everyone to enjoy the river,” he said. “But people need to make sure they take it seriously if there’s a tree across the river or hazards that are in the river.”

Winneshiek County Sheriff Dan Marx attributed the increased number of river rescues to a “complete lack of knowledge, skill and awareness that this is a natural river” and to “drinking to complete inebriation.”

“We’ve had people ask if they’re going in a circle like the lazy river at a water park,” Marx said.

Marx said the family members rescued Tuesday — ranging in age from 6 to 71 — were not intoxicated, indicating lack of experience was the likely culprit.

The kayakers “got caught up in a tree,” Kerndt said.

The group — some from Cedar Rapids, some from India — was there for a family reunion, Marx said.

The family called 911 when they became stranded. Once the firefighters arrived, they provided the family with a portable radio for better reception. No one required medical attention.

Officers from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Department of Transportation assisted.

l Comments: (319) 398-8327; john.steppe@thegazette.com

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