In John Bailot's opinion, his department's name is a misnomer.

The chief presides over the Worthington Fire and Emergency Medical Services Division, which includes far more than its name would suggest, he said.


"We aren't really a fire department," he said. "We're an all-hazards department. ... It's either a police issue, or it's everything else."

In larger cities, Bailot said, it's not uncommon to have specific departments for fire-suppression services, water rescues, hazardous-materials situations and other operations. But in Worthington, Bailot's division is responsible for handling all those responsibilities.

"These guys come in every day at 7:30 in the morning and they don't know what their day is going to be like," he said. "They just know they'll have to go from emergency to emergency to emergency. ... I would put these guys up against anybody. They're jacks of all trades and masters of all of them."

Some firefighters, like Chris Courtney, have more training in certain scenarios than others. Courtney is a certified water-rescue technician, and he always has had an affinity for water missions, especially compared to height-related rescues, he said.

"If something goes wrong with ropes, there's nothing underneath me," he said with a laugh. "If something goes wrong over water, I can swim."

For only the third time in four years, Worthington's water-rescue unit was tested last month when a man trying to rescue his dog jumped into the Olentangy River near Fox Lane and north of Antrim Park.

The part of the waterway in Worthington's jurisdiction is one of the few bodies of water local rescuers must cover, but it also contains one of their most dangerous obstacles.

By the time crews arrived April 5, Joseph Charles Crites, 67, of northwest Columbus was caught in the churn of a lowhead dam, one of a few on the Olentangy but the only one in Worthington's section of the river.

The dams often are visible but mostly misunderstood, Bailot said.

Unlike dams that some people are more familiar with -- large, obvious walls that protrude from the water -- lowhead dams sit almost at the water level while spanning a river or stream.

When water levels are high, the river runs over lowhead dams. They act like spillways and create a vertical drop for the water, similar to the appearance of a waterfall.

As the water flows over, a churning effect is created, reminiscent of an undertow at a beach, which can drag underwater anything -- especially people.

"It will push an entire boat under," Courtney said.

The water's movement as it flows over the dam aerates the water, creating a churning effect below that causes objects to sink straight to the bottom, where such debris as branches and rocks also tend to be caught, he said. A recirculating current causes the cycle to repeat, drawing objects back toward the dam and effectively trapping them in the backwash.

"Michael Phelps couldn't swim his way out," Bailot said.

Crites was underwater for about 30 minutes. He was pronounced dead at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital after Worthington paramedics transported him there. His dog, Brookie, was able to swim to shore.

In situations in which rescuers must respond to a water emergency, Courtney said, planning and training are crucial, especially given the infrequency of the calls.

He said the key is to plan a response ahead of time, rather than letting the operation get chaotic.

"It's like a football game," Courtney said. "We draw up a play."

Although Courtney has saved two dogs on calls over the past four years, that won't always be possible, he said.

And in a situation in which a dog could put a firefighter's life in danger, it might not even be possible to attempt a rescue.

"We always go by risk versus reward," he said. "We're not going to risk as much for a dog as we would for a person. ... I'm a dog handler; I love dogs. But I know it's not the same."

If a water rescue is needed, it likely will involve everyone available.

Worthington owns one boat, a flat-bottomed, aluminum vessel known as "jon boat." It is kept at the fire station and filled with the water-rescue team's gear, and it is relatively easy to launch into the water with a small group of people.

Although Courtney and others who have experience and training will be the most involved, even the less-skilled members of the team can help stabilize things from the shore or assist with putting the boat into the water.

"We won't put everyone in the boat," he said. "We're going to put our most experienced, certified people in the boat. But there are always people on the shore. It's all hands on deck."

Even for the experienced swimmers and certified water-rescue technicians, it's preferable to draw up a plan that involves staying on the shore, which can drastically reduce the danger to firefighters, Bailot said.

"We want to stay on land if at all possible," Bailot said.

Rescue operations always are different, he said. Some involve pulling a victim into a boat, whereas others might involve anchoring a rope to either side of the shore and pushing the boat out without its propeller running.

Other times, it might be possible to use one of the department's many flotation devices to keep someone afloat.

Thanks to annual re-certifications, Courtney and others stay current on their strategies, even though they rarely are used in Worthington.

"Fortunately, we don't go on these runs a lot," Courtney said. "But it's still something you have to be prepared for."

Part of that preparation is having the proper equipment.

Bailot said he hopes to find money in the budget to add a boat over the next few years. The types of boats he is looking for usually can be acquired for $20,000 to $25,000, but having a different vessel would add "flexibility" to dangerous situations, he said.

Those incidents, like the one involving Crites' death, are few and far between, but their dangerous nature and the potential involvement of a lowhead dam always worry Bailot and his team.

Bailot said despite posted warnings, people tend to walk on or near the dams on the Olentangy River or even sit on them because they don't know their danger. He said no laws prevent those actions, but people are asking for trouble.

"Don't get near it," he said, "because there's a very slim chance you'll get out if you fall in."