The topography of their service area surrounded by water, the members of the South Gulf Fire Volunteer Fire Department must be equally adept in the water as on land.

And that, said Assistant Fire Chief Mike Barrett, requires training.

“Being a good swimmer is not enough to be part of the water rescue team,” Barrett said.

Behind the lead of Fire Chief Vince Bishop and Barrett, the South Gulf Department, with nearly double the annual calls compared to the county’s other departments combined, have embarked on an aggressive training schedule the past two years.

They have trained on live-action structure fires at Tyndall Air Force Base.

A house donated to the department after it was all but destroyed in Hurricane Michael became a training site for response to a residential fire.

The department has established a triage team to assist firefighters on the scene of a fire and created a water rescue squad to focus on aiding those in distress in local waters.

All that beyond the 100 hours-plus of schooling required to become a certified firefighter.

“We are blessed with a very dedicated group of volunteers that are willing to continue to train, learn and serve,” Barrett said.

Last week, members of the department headed over to Panama City to train in water rescues with Panama City Fire/Rescue.

The impetus can be gleaned by a simple scan of the horizon along the South Gulf coastline.

“Every year thousands of visitors flock to the beaches of Gulf County,” Barrett said. “They are here for fun, sun and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“Sometimes the dangers of the Gulf present themselves; without warning or time to escape, swimmers can be taken out by dangers and sometimes deadly rip currents.”

The water rescue team established out of the department must be versed in the characteristics of dangerous currents and how to effectively deploy the equipment, buoys, Emily, life rings, ropes, etc.

In addition, the members of the team must communicate and protect each other while providing first aid to distressed swimmers, Bishop said.

“It is our responsibility to see that the members of our department are properly trained and equipped to rescue swimmers in distress,” Bishop said.

The training last week covered a host of scenarios involving distressed swimmers.

“We were very-well received and respected by the Panama City Fire/Rescue members,” Barrett said.

“Training with other professional groups is invaluable, not only for serving the public, but also sending rescuers home alive.”