The Seattle Fire Department is reviewing water-rescue training protocols and is considering adding rescue swimmers to some engine companies following the death of a 27-year-old Washington State University student whose drowning in a downtown Seattle hotel swimming pool last month went undiscovered by a fire crew.
Tesfaye Girma Deboch apparently foundered in the pool’s deep end and submerged. Officials believe his body was held underwater by a drain pump whose emergency shutoff failed.
Earlier reports said that the water was so cloudy that firefighters could not see the drain at the bottom of the deep end of the 25-foot-long pool. However, a Fire Department report says that, while the water was hazy, the crew reported that “visibility was good” and that firefighters could see the drain, although no victim was seen. The crew decided not to put anyone in the pool, and a water-rescue and dive team dispatched from the Sodo District was canceled.
As an explanation, the report cites a 2007 study showing that lifeguards can have difficulties spotting submerged victims even when the bottom of the pool is visible. Chief Gregory Dean said the Fire Department will look into training some engine company members as rescue swimmers, review its water-rescue protocols and provide additional search-and-rescue training.
Deboch was one of 14 graduate students from WSU’s School of Economic Sciences who were in Seattle June 30 to attend the Western Economics Association International Conference. He and friends went swimming at the end of the day, and he disappeared below the surface. Firefighters were first dispatched at 5:35 p.m. but were unable to locate anyone in the pool. According to the report, the crews cleared from the scene after 17 minutes.
An autopsy indicated Deboch drowned.
The crews were dispatched again at 8:12 p.m. when a retired firefighter who was staying at the hotel joined in the ongoing search by Deboch’s frantic friends and found the body in the water using a pole. The report says firefighters found the water much hazier during their second response.
Dean said crews will likely receive updated training on underwater rescues in pools and close to shore — along with training about the difficulties of underwater searches. The report concluded that the “crew did not understand how challenging it is to see a submerged victim even when it appears that the bottom of the pool is plainly visible.”