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Innovation on Lake Washington: UW Rowing’s W.E.T. Program

By Jeff Bechthold and Eric Cohen

Hunter Simpson, ’49, knew a few things about innovation. Simpson, who passed away in 2006, was one of the most influential Washington Rowing Stewards of his generation, and a pioneer in mobile heart defibrillators at Physio-Control throughout the 80’s and 90’s. He was a staunch believer in teamwork and giving back. To him, rowing was the purest of team sports, and philanthropy was a way of life.

It is in that spirit of teamwork and community—coupled with the technology that Simpson revolutionized—that the Washington Rowing program has teamed with Seattle Fire, the Seattle Police Department, the Nick of Time Foundation, the boating community and UW team physician Dr. Henry Pelto to establish a new on-the-water lifesaving protocol called Water Emergency Training, or W.E.T.  The program – a first of its kind in the rowing world – seeks to dramatically cut the response time to a major on-the-water athletic incident requiring life- saving technology.

“This puts us at the forefront of on-the-water safety,” UW men’s coach Michael Callahan said. “Huskies have been innovators since the Conibear Stroke, Pocock Shells, training… and now emergency cardiac science.”

“A fairly standard pillar of athlete medical care is emergency planning,” said Dr. Pelto. “It’s really well researched that if you get to people early and start CPR, every minute you miss that, people’s chances of surviving go down.”

The process of designing a plan uncovered the many variations, and complicated scenarios, that can exist on the water. “How do you even get to somebody? How do you pull them out of the boats?” said Pelto. “We wanted to make sure that we are as efficient and effective and communicative as possible.”

To that end, the medical staff, UW coaches and local authorities set about building procedures for these unique scenarios, addressing the challenges associated with giving aid to someone in a rowing shell.  That included each type of boating configuration (8, 4, pair, single), the water conditions, the launch type, the personnel available, the location, and the emergency type.

UW coaches’ launches are each equipped with AEDs (automatic defibrillators), made possible by the David McLean ’67 Scholarship endowment. Dave passed away of cardiac arrest, and his son, Pete, has been in the AED field for much of his career.  Pete, and his wife Heather, started the endowment in his father’s name.

“My dad highly valued his time at the UW and on the rowing team here, and this was an opportunity to give back to a program that meant so much to him.  AED’s are a mainstay in any athletic forum… just because rowing is out in the middle of a lake does not mean an AED can’t be readily available and usable. We are glad to be a part of this, and to make this part of dad’s legacy.”

Together with local fire and police, the Huskies’ coaches and athletes were instructed in CPR, trained in various on-the-water scenarios, and recorded videos for future training.  They drew up maps in each launch showing docks to meet EMT’s, trained the coaches and athletes in athlete extraction, and set up detailed plans.

“Seattle Fire and Police have always been at the leading edge of emergency medicine and Seattle is a hub of AED technology,” Callahan continued. “It all came together in this project. It not only makes Washington Rowing safer, but allows others to use this as a successful model.”

“We want to make this broadly available,” said Dr. Pelto. We don’t want to have this be some hidden UW thing.” To that end, the UW is actively offering to any rowing program their complete plan. “Call us or write us,” said Callahan, “We want this out there.”

Hunter Simpson’s spirit of teamwork, innovation, and community is still alive and well at Conibear Shellhouse.