Flash floods battered parts of New Jersey earlier this week, with Flemington Borough and Raritan Township in Hunterdon County receiving the highest amounts of rainfall to immobilize dozens in the area.
Fortunately, the region’s only first aid and rescue squad was anything but.
The Flemington-Raritan First Aid & Rescue Squad, which has a mix of paid staff and volunteers, responded to 25 water rescues throughout Flemington Borough, Raritan Township and surrounding municipalities between the hours of 6 p.m. and 12 a.m. on Saturday, July 17.
The squad also responded to five non-water rescue emergencies including an accident resulting in a partial amputation, an injured fall victim, a substance overdose, a motor vehicle accident with entrapped subjects, and a vehicle stuck in a ditch.
The squad — which services Flemington Borough and Raritan Township, as well as a portion of Delaware Township and surrounding communities — responded to only one flash flood emergency in 2021 prior to Saturday, and a total of four from 2018 to 2020. On average, the unit responds to approximately 7 to 10 emergencies per day.
Tom Hoffman, the chief of the squad, said he has never before seen so much water — nor has he seen water rise as quickly as it did on Saturday night.
“We know the areas that are typical flood areas when we get a lot of rain, so we knew they were going to be problem spots. But, usually you can say, ‘Okay this spot is going to happen first; and then this spot’s going to happen; and then this spot,’” Hoffman said. “That evening, we had all the spots and all the areas affected at once, and we even had a few of the areas that don’t normally get flood affected.”
Andrew Glowacki, vice president of the squad, confirmed that each of the water rescues was motor-vehicle related.
“In many cases, drivers attempted to cross flooded roadways which were deeper than anticipated, or experienced a rapid rise in water level as the drivers attempted to cross,” Glowacki detailed. “This typically resulted in cars stalling and the vehicle occupants being stranded.”
In some occasions, passersby called 911 to report a vehicle that appeared stuck in flood waters but was found empty by the squad. Approximately ten times throughout the evening, the rescue squad’s crews came across and rescued other stranded drivers while en route to other incidents.
“If the water wasn’t too deep ... we would drive (our rescue) truck right up to the car, and then take the people out of the car and put them into the truck and drive them back to dry land,” Hoffman explained. “If the water was too deep for that, then we would launch a boat and send a boat out to them to try to retrieve them and get them back to dry land.
“We had one incident where the vehicle was swept off the roadway, through a field and woods, about half a mile away,” Hoffman added. “Fortunately, the person was able to get out and get on top of the car as it floated downstream ... and was rescued from the waters.”
In addition to the water rescues, the squad also assisted in blocking off unsafe roadways, directing traffic, and giving out-of-town motorists directions to higher grounds, Glowacki added.
“These efforts certainly prevented additional water rescues from being necessary,” Glowacki said.
When the storm began at approximately 6 p.m. on Saturday, only three of the 100 active members on the squad were scheduled to be on duty, according to Glowacki. But as a result of the turbulent weather conditions, roughly 24 members became active throughout Saturday evening.
“One major benefit of our volunteer-driven system is that plenty of local members are able to respond from home to help in times of high call volume or during complex operations,” Glowacki said. “This ensures that properly trained help arrives in a timely manner during emergencies without having to pull resources from surrounding systems.”
The squad typically prepares extra staff members and other resources when expecting an impending storm, but Hoffman noted that there was “no indication” that this storm “would be as intense as it was.”
“A lot of times when we go out, especially in swift water or moving water, we like to have a backup team. But because of the sheer volume that evening, we were making rescues and treating people without that backup team in place because we didn’t have the capability to do that and respond to all the other requests for assistance,” he said.
There was dually immense traffic and “confusion from the public” as a result of the spontaneity of the storm, Glowacki added.
“It certainly was grander in scale than we anticipated based on weather forecasts and emergency alerts. And additionally the public was surprised by that too,” Glowacki said. “So we had a lot of people traveling through the area, especially folks from out of town, given that it was a summer weekend.”
Hoffman said the squad was required to request assistance from neighboring first responder units including South Branch Emergency Services, the Raritan Township Fire Company, and other local Offices of Emergency Management and police departments to meet the tremendous volume of calls.
“We were fortunate that their areas were not affected to the same magnitude as the greater Flemington-Raritan area was, or they would not have been able to assist,” he said.
In reflecting on the unprecedented weather over the weekend, Glowacki and Hoffman underscored the importance of their services to the safety of the Hunterdon community.
“Our goal is to keep everyone safe, make sure everyone has the best possible outcome they can in any type of emergency, and see that folks get home in a timely fashion and manner,” Hoffman said. “So it’s important for us to be out there to assist the public in their time of need, and it takes a lot of training and time and commitment to be prepared for these situations — especially the situations we saw on July 17.”
“The best of our agency came out on Saturday night,” Glowacki added. “On a moment’s notice, without any real warning, 24 of our neighbors and community members came out to assist each other in an emergency situation.
“That really is a good thing to be a part of, and it makes me very happy to service this community and live in it as well.”
But, Glowacki and the other current squad members do not need to be the only ones basking in that kind of happiness.
“If you want to do these things — if you want to join and build these skills — it’s accessible to you,” Glowacki said. “We’re always looking for new members, we’re always looking to show people how they can help the community and their neighbors in times of emergency.”
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Caroline Fassett may be reached at email@example.com.