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Nassau, Suffolk demonstrate 'rescue sticks' to save swimmers

Emergency responders of police departments for both LI counties tested emergency rescue technology at Tobay Beach in Nassau on Wednesday.   (Credit: Barry Sloan)

A day spent at the beach or the bay usually ends for thousands with nothing worse than a sunburn or chapped lips. But it's the constant potential for a far worse outcome that can keep Nassau and Suffolk first responders on edge when the weather gets warm.

On Wednesday, rescue teams from both counties gathered at Nassau's Tobay Beach — sunsplashed but mostly empty of the crowds soon to come — to demonstrate and practice using inflatable flotation devices to rescue distressed swimmers and anyone else who finds themselves bobbing in Long Island waters without a life preserver or much hope for surviving.

The orange devices, known as "rescue sticks" and made of plastic, are about the size of a standard folded umbrella. Similar to the portable ramps used to evacuate passengers from an airplane, the rescue sticks fill with with air in seconds after they hit the water.

Lt. Adam Fischer, of the Nassau police aviation unit, oversaw the training, which included a total of 30 officers from both counties. The goal, Fischer said, was to ensure a cohesive working relationship between Nassau and Suffolk rescue units. 

Suffolk already uses the devices but they are new to Nassau, Fischer said. 

Cooperation is crucial when someone's life could be in the balance, officials said.

"They have to work together," said Nassau police Det. Maureen Roach, who took part in the training session, referring to first responders in both counties.

A pair of rescue helicopters and marine bureau boats from Nassau and Suffolk counties hovered above Tobay Beach and in the calm waters about 100 yards from shore Wednesday morning to do just that.

As a helicopter hovered about 150 feet above, an officer playing the part of a distressed swimmer bobbed in the water below. A crew member aboard the chopper would extend a hand out clutching a rescue stick and let it go. Once in the water just feet from the officer, the device would quickly inflate.

It might sound like a simple training exercise but officials said, an error when letting go of a rescue stick could be deadly. The devices weigh just a pound but dropped from a hovering helicopter, they can hit someone in need of help with the force of a much heavier object, officials said.

During practice, the stick landed within feet of the victim at almost every drop.

Fischer said air units are often times the first to arrive in water emergencies, so having a flotation device that can be deployed from an aircraft is important.

“Any type of flotation device of course would be useful,” Fischer said. “But we feel at this point this is one of the best tools available to us.”

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