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Fire department makes water rescue

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  Vandenberg firefighter Matt Stevens races through the waves during a water rescue at Wall Beach here Feb. 19. The Vandenberg Fire Department's water rescue team rescued an Airman who was pulled out to sea while surfing. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Vandenberg firefighter Matt Stevens races through the waves during a water rescue at Wall Beach here Feb. 19. The Vandenberg Fire Department's water rescue team rescued an Airman who was pulled out to sea while surfing. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  Vandenberg firefighter Matt Stevens works with fellow firefighters to prepare a watercraft for a water rescue at Wall Beach here Feb. 19. The Vandenberg Fire Department's water rescue team rescued an Airman who was pulled out to sea while surfing. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Vandenberg firefighter Matt Stevens works with fellow firefighters to prepare a watercraft for a water rescue at Wall Beach here Feb. 19. The Vandenberg Fire Department's water rescue team rescued an Airman who was pulled out to sea while surfing. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Braving cold water and waves as high as 10 feet, the Vandenberg Fire Department rescued an Airman at Wall Beach here at approximately 9 a.m. Feb. 19. 

The Airman was surfing with two friends when she was pulled out past the surf line by rip currents and off-shore winds. 

After trying unsuccessfully to help her, the Airman's friends returned to shore, one keeping an eye on the stranded surfer, the other calling 911. The call reached the Vandenberg Emergency Control Center, which forwarded the call to the fire department. 

The bell rang at the fire station at 7:36 a.m., just after the morning roll call. Staff Sgt. Robert Raffel, a fire department battalion chief, as well as the rest of A-shift, was just coming on for the day. 

"Once it came in as a water rescue call, it started a lot of things moving," Sergeant Raffel said. "We had units on the north side of Vandenberg responding, as well as our (watercraft) and water rescue trucks from Station 5 on South Base." 

Fire department paramedics and firefighters arrived on scene shortly after the call, ahead of the water rescue vehicles. Not knowing when the watercraft would arrive, Marissa Halbeisen, a Vandenberg firefighter and member of the water rescue team, geared up and got permission to swim out to the Airman. Ms. Halbeisen is not only a water rescue team member, but a skilled surfer as well. 

"I was talking to Marissa about a month ago about surfing, she's a surfing nut," said Fire Chief Mark Farias. "She was telling me the different things with the boards, how to read the water, the different kinds of suits." 

Unfortunately, Ms. Halbeisen was unable to reach the Airman by swimming, since the Airman was pulled so far out to sea. However, the watercraft showed up soon after and water rescue team member Matt Stevens picked her up. Once they got to the Airman, Ms. Halbeisen helped her aboard the watercraft and stayed with the surfboard as Mr. Stevens took the Airman back to shore. He picked up Ms. Halbeisen afterward. 

After the rescue, the Airman was transported to the base gym so she could change and shower to warm up, Sergeant Raffel said. Her main complaints were that she was cold and tired, and she did not want to go to the hospital. 

The fact that this Airman was able to walk away from this situation only needing a warm shower is a testament to the training, professionalism and teamwork of the entire fire department, Chief Farias said. 

"It's a very proud moment when you get to see these guys jump in the fray and put their own safety secondary," said the chief. "It doesn't mean they do it recklessly, but it's a dangerous business. I'm impressed every day by what these guys do." 

Even though this Airman was lucky enough to have friends nearby to call 911, everyone using Vandenberg beaches needs to be aware of the dangers of rip currents and all ocean dynamics. 

"A lot of people are stationed here and they want to go out and recreate, and they don't understand or know what a rip current is or what it looks like," Ms. Halbeisen said. "Our coast line here is a lot different than other beaches in this area, such as Refugio Beach. We have a lot of rip currents and pretty good size swells here, too." 

For more information on rip currents and ocean recreation safety, go to http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov/overview.shtml.