First-ever indoor swiftwater rescue training facility opens in Austin

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AUSTIN (KXAN)– When first responders train for rescue scenarios, they can only recreate Mother Nature’s wrath to a certain point. Fathom Academy in north Austin is working to change that.

Barton Bollfrass is the CEO of Fathom Academy and was inspired to start the business after serving in the U.S. Navy.

“We tailor everything as best we can — environmentally, psychologically — to allow people to run through scenarios in a safe, controlled environment so that we can give them the better chance of rescuing people and surviving,” Bollfrass said.

Fathom Academy says this is the first indoor swift water rescue training facility of its kind anywhere in the world. A pool of water replicates the flow, rise and temperature of a flood situation.

“Hurricanes are going to keep hitting us and swift water rescues are going to keep happening,” Bollfrass said. “Giving first responders someplace and even civilians a place that’s realistic gives them a better chance.”

Georgetown firefighter and retired Coast Guard member, Sean Arndt, helps to train crews at Fathom Academy. He feels this type of training is going to make crews more prepared for emergency situations.

“We control the scenario, what we can do it,” Arndt said. “We can make the water slow and then fast, which in turn lets you practice at a slow speed, then work your way up to the more in-depth rescues.”

Arndt says that departments often face challenges every year due to the unpredictability of the weather.

“We always have water, it’s hard to train for swift water during a drought,” he explained. “If the water is not running, the river is not running, it’s hard to get flow. Here we have flow every day. We can do it in the summer and the winter. It’s a more controlled environment.”

Fathom Academy is similar to a movie set. Thunder, rain, lighting and even cries for help are often simulated so that first responders are training in as a close to an emergency situation as possible.

The design of the facility and training scenarios were recreated with help from those who experience these situations first hand.

Arndt points out that this facility allows them to practice more than once in a shorter amount of time. It also allows them to simulate scenarios that they wouldn’t be able to recreate in Mother Nature, such as rescuing someone from a submerged vehicle.

“You’ll get to actually practice going up to the vehicle, getting someone out of the vehicle, putting a life jacket on them after they get out of the vehicle. Really you only practice that when it’s time, when you actually have a rescue,” Arndt said.

“You start to see that danger fade away,” Bollfrass said. “All that’s left is someone who knows the scenario, knows how to do it and it’s quickly. You can create something you have yet to encounter and run it through to it’s fruition.”

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