BEDFORD — This is a drill.
A late-April nor'easter with heavy rains has hit the area and the rising Merrimack River is causing record flooding. Multiple emergency calls are coming into 9-1-1 at a steady pace, and rescue teams are being dispatched to save people along the flood plain and those who have fallen into the river during a 500-year flood.
This scenario was presented to the Souhegan Mutual Aid Response Team's Search and Rescue Unit, based out of the Bedford Fire Department, and rescue teams from across New England as they took part in a training exercise on Thursday.
Off site, the emergency operation center, or EOC, was heavily manned to manage and help support the incident command's emergency and rescue response, as helicopters flying overhead searched for victims.
Crews searched eight miles along the Merrimack River shoreline and islands to save 350 mock victims within four hours.
During the water rescue exercise on Thursday, the river level was actually 9.9 feet, which is about 5 feet above normal, said Scott Hunter, Bedford Fire Department public information officer. And, the water temperature was 33 degrees. Rescue teams launched water craft into the river and brought mock victims back to safety.
"The exercise scenarios are designed to simulate those that potentially could happen with these flooding conditions. The exercise scenario has river gauge level readings at 29 feet, the second highest on record. Flood stage at this location is 11 feet and has exceeded that nine times in the last 25 years," Hunter said.
The exercise is the culmination of three years of planning, training and conducting tabletop exercises made possible through a Homeland Security Exercise grant of more than $125,000.
"It's the largest exercise of its kind, not only in New Hampshire but nationwide," said Hunter. "When we train we train for high risk and low frequency events and to be prepared for whatever gets in the way."
About 200 staffers, team members and evaluators were on the scene, including the Souhegan Mutual Aid Response Team, Manchester Fire Department, Keene Fire Department, Three Rivers W.E.T., Pemi Valley W.E.T., Canine Alert Search Team, Seacoast Incident Management Team, N.H. Fish and Game, state police and marine patrol, the fire marshal's office, N.H. Homeland Security and Emergency Management, N.H. Army National Guard and teams from Vermont, New York and Virginia.
During the training exercise, teams were evaluated on their core goals, objectives, timing and their ability to work together. The teams were unaware of the scenario until the event — they only knew they would be operating in swift water.
Mike Berna, a rescue consultant from Baltimore, Md., said teams receive points and he writes a narrative focusing on their strengths and weaknesses, which provides teams a building tool to help them improve.
"It's all about improving on their capabilities," Berna said. "This is a good way to do a litmus test. It's like throwing a piece of spaghetti on a wall and seeing if it sticks."
Goffstown Fire Chief Richard O'Brien said five firefighters in his department are members of the Souhegan Mutual Aid Response swiftwater team.
"They enjoy the additional training and bring it back to our community and make members aware of the swiftwater operations," he said. "We're trained in water rescue operations, but this training takes it up a notch by bringing it into more extreme conditions."
Perry Plummer, director of N.H. Department of Safety's Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said this is one of the most dangerous training exercises.
"In a controlled burn you can turn the fire down, in an EMS exercise you can shut down the drill, but you can't turn off the water," Plummer said. "Bedford's fire department has done a great job. Over the last few years, we put a lot of money into this and leading that crusade was Ben Selleck (Bedford's swiftwater/flood rescue team leader). A drill like this is money well spent."
Plummer said during exercises teams find they can work together and that strength helps keep New Hampshire safe as water rescues are the most frequent incidents in the state.
"Until you try the entire plan in totality, that's when you can find and address gaps," Plummer said.