A Butler County Community College professor has been recognized by the state for outstanding service.
Chris Calhoun, 56, of Butler was applauded by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission for helping develop the agency’s water rescue program, which is the nation’s only water rescue program approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Calhoun has been a parks and recreation management professor at BC3 since the mid-80s. Under his guidance, the state’s 175 water-rescue instructors train 5,000 first responders each year to respond to water emergencies, many of them volunteers.
“Calhoun’s expertise and abilities in this role are without peer,” said Ryan C. Walt, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s boating and watercraft safety manager, who nominated Calhoun for the award that recognizes high achievement or superior performance, outstanding supervisory or managerial leadership, and-or exceptional creativity of work. “He is a credit to this agency and has effectively compiled and created water-rescue curriculum which results in the saving of lives.”
Among the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s water-rescue curricula developed by Calhoun – who credits the teamwork of his instructor trainer colleagues for “reviewing and editing the subject matter to make sure that it is correct” – are the three-hour water rescue for the first responder; and 16-hour water rescue and emergency response, emergency boat operations and rescue, and advance line systems rescue.
Calhoun is “an experienced professional,” Walt said, “who has been very successful creating concise lesson plans that present critical information to emergency responders.”
And the ice rescue and emergency response curriculum, bound within a 90-page manual revised in November after two years of updates, Calhoun said, and one that – like those he has been developing since his first 16-page, typewritten guide in 1989 – now includes PowerPoint presentations and video lessons.
Calhoun rewrites the manuals. Creates new PowerPoint presentations. Films and edits videos. Then organizes the content, which is used to train first-responders across the commonwealth.
“This is what makes this program work in Pennsylvania,” Calhoun said. “It doesn’t matter if you are in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. It doesn’t matter if you are in the southern part of the state, or the northern part of the state. Everyone is going through the same curriculum. Everybody speaks the same language.”
One of the volunteers trained in water rescue techniques this year is Jason Butterfield, of Zelienople.
“The curriculum is very thorough,” said Butterfield, a volunteer firefighter in Evans City who with Calhoun is a member of the Butler County Water Rescue Team 300. “Chris and the commission have put a lot of time and research into the curriculum to make sure that whether you are doing water rescues in Butler County or on Lake Erie, it’s standardized. Steps are followed in a very particular order to ensure everybody’s safety.”
Dave Abt, president of the 300-member International Association of Water Rescue Professionals since its founding in 2012 in Lusby, Md., considers Calhoun to be among the elite experts in the United States in a water-rescue field that is 400 percent more dangerous than any other aspect of rescue operations, he said.
“(Rescues are) a very low frequency event,” Abt said. “In a lot of rescue-type scenarios, for technical skills, you build up muscle memory. You just instinctively do it. You are not actually thinking about it. Because these events are so infrequent, unless you train all the time, you don’t build and maintain the muscle memory to execute the drill. So when these curriculums are developed, and presented, it is that same consistency that is presented over and over again, which helps retain the muscle memory.”
Abt said he has also spent “hundreds and hundreds” of hours training in the water with Calhoun, and that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission award acknowledges the extensiveness of the curricula.
“Pennsylvania (water-rescue members are) primarily made up of volunteers,” Abt said. “You don’t always have the same people responding to an incident. A volunteer fire department may have 30 people on a team. You’re not sure which five are able to show up for a callout. Having a consistent presentation and a consistent message and consistent interpretation of the skills is extremely critical for success and safety.”
Added Butterfield: “You don’t always work with the same people time and time again. It’s important when we show up to help others that we are doing the same things they are doing because they have all gone through the same curriculum.”
Grahn is also a strike team leader for the Pennsylvania Helicopter Rescue Aquatic Rescue Team, on which Calhoun serves as a rescue technician.
“People don’t realize the lives (Calhoun) has saved just by training them and with the instruction in those curriculums,” Grahn said.
First-responders also learn how to utilize small inflatable boats used in flash flooding – such as those deployed on Jan. 12 in Butler County, when Butler County Water Rescue Team 300 rescued 12 residents, including one in “dire circumstances,” Calhoun said – after the Connoquenessing Creek rose 11 feet over 36 hours Jan 11-12.
“People may not be aware of how many lives that were saved even by his involvement in the community with his Butler County team,” Grahn said.
Calhoun in June will be what Abt calls a “premier speaker” for the fifth time at the International Association of Water Rescue Professionals conference in South Bend, Ind., which draws 200 each year, Abt said.
Like those who will attend the international conference, those taught by Calhoun in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s “train the trainer” programs “leave with a part of him,” Abt said. “And a part of his knowledge that will carry on in the future.”