Guardians of the Sea: For These Heroes, Death Is One Decision Away
ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. - You've seen them on TV and the big screen -- jumping from helicopters into frigid waters to rescue people.
Coast Guard rescue swimmers have an extremely important job. If they're not trained properly, it can mean the difference between life and death.
"This is your first one-man rescue scenario," an instructor tells a rescue swimmer candidate. "You have 10 minutes to compete the evolution; you need to signal for your rescue device."
The student prepares for a major milestone in a grueling 24-week training program at the Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, N.C.
"Checking fins, checking trident, checking mask," the recruit shouts.
One of the toughest tests for rescue swimmer candidates is what's called the "non-compliant survivor" test. After jumping off a 15-foot platform into the pool below, the swimmer must then safely get control of an uncooperative "victim" and put that person into a rescue basket.
An instructor plays the part of the victim. Others grade the test from inside and outside the pool, critiquing every move.
The rescue swimmer gets three tries to pass. Fail the test, and you pack your bags.
A lot is at stake for these Coast Guard airmen. They've already invested 10 weeks in the most demanding training program in the Coast Guard.
"Approximately 65 to 70 percent will not make it through the program," Master Chief Lewis Hart told CBN News.
"Although we get some incredibly gifted athletes into our program, the toughest part of this training is definitely in the pool, and it's a combination of persistence, courage, comfort in the water," he said.
"Some of the students have it, and some don't. If they do, we can enhance it, and if they don't, there's nothing you can do to give them that," he continued. "But we do everything that we can for those who are determined to make it through the program to see that they will succeed."
That includes Tyler Poole, 20, one of the few to pass the non-compliant survivor test.
"If you're going to do it -- full-heartedness; don't come in halfway," Poole told CBN News. "It's got to be everything."
"For me, there's nothing else; I'm stuck here, not here, but in the Coast Guard for another five years, and there's nothing else here I want to do besides be a rescue swimmer, so if you're going to do it, go all the way," he said.
Poole said the 2006 film, "The Guardian," starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, inspired him to be a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.
Chief Ken Kiest is one of the instructors.
"I coin the phrase, 'We are the guardian angels,'" Kiest shared.
"People are out there in distress; it's dark, stormy," he described. "They're at their worst, and they're more than likely praying to Jesus to save them, and who comes overhead -- their guardian angel in an orange helicopter and a deployed Coast Guard rescue swimmer."
In 2011, the Coast Guard reported it saved three out of four people they went after in the water.
Coast Guard helicopter crews save approximately 850 lives each year. In 2005, that number spiked to around 7,500 -- the vast majority being Hurricane Katrina victims.
Kiest, a rescue swimmer for 22 years, knows first-hand the importance of the job. His Christian faith also motivates him to see recruits succeed.
Need for More Rescuers
"I pray every day for these students," Kiest said. "I get on my knees in my office before I come out and before they get in the pool, and I just ask for His guiding strength and for the Holy Spirit to fill these students with courage, strength, and endurance that they all make it through this school. We need these students through this school."
Instructor Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Morgan said the fleet's current number of rescue swimmers is about 80 percent of the ideal total. He said a recently revamped training program will help grow that number without compromising skill level.
"I think the way we've designed the program... what it's done is it's actually done a good job at building these students up rather than weeding them out," Morgan told CBN News.
"Give a hand to the guy who wrote our fitness program; he's done a good job, and they're actually getting stronger -- the ones that are focused," he said.
Better Building, Tougher Students
A new multi-million dollar training facility can also be credited with producing tougher students.
Kiest demonstrates a touch-screen control panel that produces waves in the pool, turns on fans that can simulate 70-mile-per-hour winds, triggers nozzles that spray sheets of rain, and controls dozens of sound effects -- thunder, rotors, jets, foghorns, and sirens, just to name a few.
Graham McGinnis, 28, recently graduated from the rescue swimmer school. It was his second try, yet his perseverance paid off -- New Orleans is his next assignment.
"I've learned so much about myself, and I've learned so much about the power of God and what He really can do when you need Him the most especially, so... whew! It's been a big journey; it's been a lot for me," McGinnis told CBN News.
"It's amazing where you can squeeze in a prayer," he said. "When as long as you got a spare second, you got time to make a prayer."
Like Kiest, McGinnis is a Christian. He said he was 8-years-old when he knew he wanted to be a rescue swimmer.
"God's got a higher calling for me, and it, for me, it's jumping out of helicopters," McGinnis said.
...and rescuing those in the waters below.