Members of the rescue team from Spain pose for a picture after their rescue exercise at the 2013 World Rescue Challenge in Clearwater Oct. 30-Nov. 2.
CLEARWATER – Coachman Park in downtown Clearwater was filled with fire trucks, emergency vehicles and dozens of firefighters Oct. 30 through Nov. 2. There wasn’t a real disaster, but the participants of the 2013 World Rescue Challenge were acting as though there was.
Emergency teams from all over the world were in the city for the annual competition that turned the waterfront into a mock disaster site for several days. The goal is to help prepare emergency response rescuers for all kinds of challenges that they may face.
Among those taking part was a three-man trauma team from the Cornwall, England fire department. Firefighter Richard Gibbons said in addition to the competition, visiting the area was as pleasure.
“We’re having a great time,” he said. “We’re staying on Clearwater Beach and the people are very helpful and friendly. Your reputation has certainly been enhanced.”
Gibbons said his department is a small one and although it helped pay the expenses of the three representatives, they had to come up with some money themselves to pay for the trip. But he said it was worth it.
“This has been fantastic,” he said. “The venue has been amazing and the organization is very slick. For us, it has been a learning experience. This gives personnel from all over the world the opportunity to network and to feed off one another.”
There was more to learn than just rescue and trauma techniques. Birgit Wilhelm of Largo attended the event to share information with the firefighters about the special techniques needed to rescue handicapped people.
“This is important. I’m asking them what they do when a disabled or handicapped person is involved and needs to be rescued,” she said. “Some of them have told me that they haven’t encountered such a situation, and I say really?”
Wilhelm, who is confined to a wheelchair and uses a service dog, said it is a serious and important issue.
“Getting rescued is important to me,” Wilhelm said. “There aren’t always big rescues, but handicapped people get into situations all the time and need help. I intend to talk to a representative of every country that is here.”
Twenty countries were represented in the competition. The teams from those countries represented all parts of the world, which is something that Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said was very important.
“We have people here from Australia, South America, Africa and North America,” Cretekos said. “It is helping us showcase our best: the beach, the sunset and our vibrant community. When you hear the firefighters and their families say they love it here, I’m not surprised. I knew they would love it here. They have come a long way to get here, and many have said they want to come back. We are friendly and I’m glad we made a good impression and that people are in love with us.”
Cretekos said the timing for the event was good as well.
“It comes at a slow time of the year for us, so it really helps out,” he said. “These people are going to restaurants; they are staying in hotels, so it is good for the economy.”
There is no doubt the event is also good for the way firefighters go about their work. Rob Shaw, public safety information officer for the Clearwater Police Department and Clearwater Fire Rescue, said an event such as this can’t help but improve what the local departments already know.
“It is a good tool for any of the agencies to go and watch some of the best from around the world do their thing,” Shaw said. “There is a team here from Canada, and teams from Europe and all over the world and no doubt you would pick up a helpful tool along the way by watching them.”
Shaw said the local departments had a hand in helping organize the event.
“The Clearwater and Palm Harbor Departments are helping the participants get back and forth to their hotels, there is another group that donated the junk cars that are being used in the competition, it is all a good thing,” Shaw said. “We have tourists from all over the world here all the time. Now it is kind of neat to have firefighters here.”
The only local team in the event was St. Petersburg Fire Rescue. Other Florida Teams came from Englewood and Miami-Dade. In all there were 28 teams participating in the competition.
Mayor Cretekos said the event provided exposure for Clearwater that money just couldn’t buy.
“I noticed at the opening ceremonies that the participants were all taking pictures and sending them to Facebook and other social media,” Cretekos said. “I realized those pictures were going all over the world and they were saying, look, I’m in Clearwater.”