After more than eight years as a full-time firefighter, the Norwich Township Fire Department's Josh Riggs was called on in December to do something new.

A water rescue.

"It's always unsettling for a chief to hear, 'Swimmer in the water,' but I am confident in the training of our firefighters. We risk a lot, though, to save a lot," fire Chief Jeff Warren said about Riggs' life-saving actions Dec. 5 at Prairie Oaks Metro Park, 3225 NE Plain City-Georgesville Road.

The park is west of Hilliard, with much of it in Brown Township, and the entrance to its Darby Bend Lake area is off Amity Road.

Riggs' actions earned him the Chief's Commendation, which Warren approved and presented to him at a Norwich Township trustees meeting March 3.

The kayaker, a 42-year-old man who lives in Columbus, just south of Roberts Road, has been recovering from the effects of hypothermia he sustained during the incident.

The man did not want to be interviewed on the record for this story.

Hypothermia is a "medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature," according to mayoclinic.org. Hypothermia can lead to failure of the nervous system and vital organs, including the heart.

According to an incident report from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the water temperature was 42 degrees Dec. 5.

A woman walking her dog on the shore heard the man yelling for help after he had gone into the water sometime earlier because of a hole in the kayak, and she called 911, Riggs said.

Norwich Township has rescue watercraft, but Riggs' unit on that day was on Feder Road about the same time, just before 2 p.m., and returning to Station 81 from another call when a dispatcher reported a man in the water at Prairie Oaks.

"We were closer to the park than we were to (Station) 81 (on Northwest Parkway in Hilliard), so we just went straight to the call," said Riggs, who worked as a part-time firefighter at Pleasant Valley and the Prairie Township Fire Department before joining Norwich Township full time in August 2011.

When the firefighters arrived, Riggs, who competes in triathlons and is an expert swimmer, swam to the man.

Riggs said he had seen the kayaker earlier that day when a new firefighter in his unit was gaining "drive time" at the Metro Park, practicing maneuvering the emergency vehicle, he said.

"By the time I arrived, (the man) had stopped yelling," he said. "He was holding onto a life jacket and just floating.

"He wasn't talking and was in pretty bad shape."

Riggs said he held the man, who was conscious but not communicating, for less than 10 minutes before a boat from the Pleasant Valley Joint Fire District in Plain City arrived at Prairie Oaks.

"I swam back after (Pleasant Valley) picked him up, and he was already en route to a hospital before I got back to shore, Riggs said.

Riggs said he was aware the man had recovered but has not communicated with him. The man was treated at a local hospital and released, Warren said.

Norwich Township fire Lt. Travis Schulz and Battalion Chief David Baird nominated Riggs for the Chief's Commendation.

Warren said the actions of all three firefighters at the scene and the clear direction of the dispatchers at the Northwest Regional Emergency Communication Center were crucial in saving the kayaker's life, Warren said.

Water rescues are a rare response for firefighters, Warren said. He estimated Norwich Township responded last year to about six such calls that required use of a watercraft, with firefighters swimming being a rarity.

Though he considered himself prepared for such a rescue, Riggs said, he is aware of the inherent risk of water rescues.

His uncle, Allan "Buzz" Anderson, died while on duty for the Wellington Volunteer Fire Department, in Lorain County, attempting to rescue two teens who survived after being swept up in a flash flood June 22, 2006.

"That gave me a different perspective," said Riggs, who was in training to become a firefighter when the 2006 incident occurred.

"It's always a risky endeavor, but Josh had the training, the ability to take direction and respond, and the outcome was a life saved," Warren said.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo