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Rescuers hone their life-saving skills in the water

DUNEDIN — A young man is swept to shore on a rescue sled. Only yards away, another is loaded onto a board while his rescuers huddle to buoy themselves while stabilizing his neck. Another is barraged with a series of discs tethered with ropes by five burly men on shore.

But the apparent catastrophe is only a series of training exercises and draws little attention from visitors to Honeymoon Island State Park.

This scene played out throughout Thursday as rescue workers shifted between casual strolls to their water bottles and hurried training missions.

The exercises, organized by the Dunedin Fire Department and the North County (Pinellas) Fire Training Group, are an attempt to reduce the number of drownings in the county through the use of interdepartmental cooperation.

"We've declared war. We are going to zero tolerance," Dunedin Fire Department Division chief Bill McElligott said. "There are too many drownings in Pinellas County."

The joint training includes Honeymoon Island lifeguards and the Dunedin, Palm Harbor, East Lake, Oldsmar and Safety Harbor fire departments.

The county had 46 drownings in 2008 and 45 in 2007. The highest number of drownings recorded in Pinellas was 63 in 2004.

"We have a tremendous amount of water here," McElligott said. "But the fact is that is a very big number of drownings. There is no reason to have statistics like that."

McElligott hopes the exercises, which continue through Friday, will help reduce the number of child drownings.

In June, three teenage swimmers were rescued by a lifeguard at Honeymoon Island State Park. Two girls and a boy swimming near Hurricane Pass were having trouble fighting the current and were unable to return to the beach, park manager Pete Krulder said

Lifeguard Brian Serio launched the park's new personal watercraft rescue vessel and found the teenagers hanging onto a boogie board, Krulder said.

Although nobody was hurt, it was the second time the Kawasaki three-seater had been used in five days. Serio had rescued three swimmers the previous Sunday.

The park bought the personal watercraft with its rescue sled just before Memorial Day using $6,800 from its equipment budget.

Krulder said the vessel can be launched more quickly than a boat, cutting response time.

"In the past several years, we've had at least one fatality in the water every year," Krulder said. "If this prevents that from happening, it'll be worth it."

Staff writer Rita Farlow contributed to this report.

Rescuers hone their life-saving skills in the water 07/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 11:32pm]

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