Inside the rescue that earned 3 Ohio firefighters the IAFC’s Ben Franklin Award of Valor
Three Colerain Township firefighters are recognized for their brave actions during a swiftwater rescue
Since 1970, the IAFC has presented the Ben Franklin Award for Valor to individual firefighters or fire crews that have demonstrated exceptional skill and bravery at great personal risk to themselves in a life-saving rescue.
The 2022 recipients, presented their awards at the IAFC’s Fire-Rescue International Conference in San Antonio, are Captain Michael Kaake, Lt. Kris Prosser and Firefighter-Paramedic Tyler Abbatiello from the Colerain Township (Ohio) Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Service.
I worked 27 years at Colerain before becoming the state fire marshal for Ohio, then 10 years as chief of another municipal Ohio department, and now back to my “home” department of Colerain in an administrative capacity. While I know each of these firefighters personally, I will let the application’s narrative submitted by Chief M. Allen Walls to give you a feel for this rescue.
Within the greater Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio area, three major tributaries, the Little Miami, Great Miami, and Whitewater Rivers empty into the Ohio River. These tributaries are extensively used for recreational activities, including fishing, tubing, canoeing and kayaking, leading to a significant number of water rescue emergencies each year. Several departments along these tributaries have developed an enhanced Mutual Aid response to help handle this type of emergency.
On July 24, 2021, the Whitewater River was clogged in places with fallen trees, and other debris from earlier flooding. These areas are commonly referred to as “strainers,” meaning that while water continues to flow, dangerous swirling currents frequently draw objects into the debris field.
The tubing, canoe and kayak livery companies had ceased their operations in some of these areas, but despite the reports of fast-moving high water, two kayakers decided to venture into the Whitewater River.
A 911 call from one of the kayakers was received by the Hamilton County Communications Center (HCCC) indicating that their companion’s kayak had overturned and that he had fallen into these turbulent waters. Given the approximate last known location of the victim, the HCCC dispatched the Whitewater Township Fire Department and additional water rescue elements to the area.
Among those responding were the Colerain Township Department of Fire and EMS’s Rescue 26 and Boat 26, as well as the Cincinnati Fire Department’s Rescue 14 and Boat 14. Prior to their arrival, these Boat crews could sense from the radio traffic of the on-shore units that the situation was extremely grave.
Colerain’s Boat 26 was first to launch with a three-person crew of Captain Mike Kaake, Lt. Kris Prosser and Firefighter-Paramedic Tyler Abbatiello. When they caught up to the victim, close to the confluence with the Ohio River, they found he was about to be swept into one of these strainers. Captain Kaake indicated the victim was bobbing in the river like a fishing float, and at times was being swept under water by the currents and undertow.
Recognizing both the urgency of the situation and under their own grave personal peril, Lt. Prosser maneuvered Colerain Boat 26 within several yards, given the cross currents, as close to the victim as possible, allowing Captain Kaake and Firefighter Abbatiello, both wearing personal flotation devices (PFD) to enter the water and swim to the victim.
These rescuers at first tried to place a PFD on the kayaker, but the frantic victim began fighting them and pushing them underwater as he attempted to stay afloat. Finally, out of exhaustion, the victim stopped fighting and the rescuers were able to secure a PFD and rope on him.
Using part of a nearby tree overhanging the river, Kaake and Abbatiello held the victim from being swept into the strainer which would have pinned him against the growing debris pile. After several minutes of this support, Cincinnati’s Boat 14, was able to maneuver into a position that allowed the rescuers to drop the victim onto the bow of Boat 14 which then took the victim to shore.
In the words of Whitewater Fire Chief Scott Schorsch, ‘Their (Kaake, Prosser, and Abbatiello) split-second decisions and swift actions made a difference and saved the victim’s life.’
The Colerain Township Department of Fire and EMS have honored Captain Kaake, Lt. Prosser, and Firefighter-Paramedic Abbatiello with the Department’s Valor Award as well as Firefighter-Paramedics Allen Coley, Blake Boettcher and Morgan Mason from Rescue 26, who assisted with on-shore duties receiving an Outstanding Unit Citation.
The actions of these members of the Colerain Township Department of Fire and EMS reflect the highest traditions of their department, and bring great honor to all of us in the profession of Firefighting, Rescue and Emergency Medical Services.
For these reasons we respectfully nominate Captain Michael Kaake, Lt. Kris Prosser and Firefighter-Paramedic Tyler Abbatiello for the 2021 IAFC/Motorola Ben Franklin Award.
A team effort
When discussing their actions that day, each of the recipients will continually discuss the team effort, not only by their shore-side crew from Rescue 26 but also that of Cincinnati’s Boat and Rescue 14, which, with a larger capacity, more powerful watercraft, under the direction of Captain Mark Flagler, were able to maneuver under the victim suspended by Captain Kaake and Firefighter Abbatiello and bring that victim safely to shore where he was turned over to an awaiting medic unit.
The recipients will also suggest that this is why they train the way they do, expecting their crews to respond with the same degree of expertise in any technical rescue situation, not just a water rescue such as they encountered that day. Nonetheless, as the nomination stated, their actions reflect the highest traditions of their 150-member department, and bring great honor to all of us in the profession of firefighting, rescue and EMS.
Congratulations Michael, Kris, Tyler and everyone who assisted in this extremely dangerous but successful rescue.