Zodiac boat training enhances Chatham County Sheriff’s Office preparedness

Pittsboro, NC – To prepare for flood water emergencies, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office conducted a specialized training exercise on Thursday, June 29, 2023, utilizing a Zodiac rigid inflatable boat on Jordan Lake. 

During the three-hour exercise, officers received instructions on overall operation of the craft, including proper inflation of the vessel.

The training exercise was part of the agency’s efforts to proactively develop strategies to address water emergencies efficiently, with Jordan Lake serving to simulate flood conditions.

Sheriff Mike Roberson, who donned swimming gear and a helmet to join his officers in the Thursday morning session, emphasized that the training is important for his officers, but he also noted that the Sheriff’s Office does not aim to compete with other first responders better equipped and trained for swift water rescue.

“We’re not trying to be a swift water rescue response unit,” Sheriff Roberson said. “It’s important for our officers to be familiar with Zodiac boats and rescue techniques, but we also recognize the vital role of fire and other first responders who specialize in swift water rescue. Our goal isn’t to compete with them, but to complement their efforts. By receiving this training, we’re enhancing our agency’s overall preparedness.”

The training – conducted at Jordan Lake’s Vista Point Boat Ramp – was led by Lt. Eddie Freeman, a water rescue expert with the North Chatham Fire Department whose nearly 40 years of experience made him ideal for the role. Lt. Freeman, on one of his days of, volunteered his time.

In the three-hour session, Lt. Freeman covered a lot of ground, beginning with the basics — including starting the Zodiac with a pull cord — and familiarizing officers with proper inflation of the craft.

He also introduced officers to the Zodiac’s unique steering capabilities.

“We’re going to start with some lazy S-type turns at moderate speed,” Lt. Freeman said, “so you can get the feel of the boat: which way makes it go right and which way makes it go left, because when you’re in the tiller it just seems the opposite. You push it away from you to go right; you pull it to you to go left.”

Designed to navigate turbulent waters with ease, Zodiac boats offer great stability and maneuverability, enabling access to areas that traditional boats could find challenging to reach, particularly areas cut off by floodwaters.  The Zodiac could prove especially useful to the Sheriff’s Office in the aftermath of hurricanes, for instance, when some communities may be isolated by rising streams and residents in those areas otherwise unable to obtain food and fuel for generators.

In addition to training in boat handling techniques, including steering and acceleration and safe and accurate navigation, officers, under Lt. Freeman’s instruction, also practiced rescue procedures, including approaches to safely retrieving and transporting individuals in distress. 

Each officer took a turn plunging into the lake to practice safely returning to the Zodiac, pulling themselves back into the craft. And they practiced victim recovery, pulling each other out of the lake and into the safety of the boat, a task more difficult than it may sound.

Sheriff Mike Roberson and Emergency Management Specialist Katie Taggett practice victim recovery procedures, hoisting Lt. Eddie Freeman safely into the Zodiac.

“Two hundred pounds feels more like 500 pounds when you’re pulling it up sideways,” observed Lt. Stephen Renn, one of half a dozen officers who took part in the training.

After covering basic operations of the Zodiac, Lt. Freeman also warned about the surprising power of flood waters, advising officers to never underestimate the potentially hazardous strength. 

“If the water gets above your waist and there’s the least bit of current in it, it can wash you away,” he said. “It can be below your knees and still take your feet out from under you.”

Sheriff Roberson was especially grateful for Lt. Freeman sharing his knowledge and skills with the Sheriff’s Office for the valuable training exercise. “We really appreciate Lt. Freeman taking his time and expertise to help train us on safety procedures and equipment familiarization,” Sheriff Roberson said. “He is definitely an asset for our community.”