After spending much of his life in water as an athlete, a dolphin trainer and a Navy diver—followed by time as a film producer—Barton Bollfrass decided to combine the two worlds of water training and immersive film sets to build the only indoor facility designed for swift-water rescue training in the world in Georgetown.

At Fathom Academy, a 67,000-gallon pool large enough to contain at least three full-size cars lies at the center of the facility, which opened in May 2018. With the capability to simulate rain, thunder and sirens and rushing water with speeds up to 9 knots, or about 10.4 mph, on the surface, the pool helps first responders and swift-water rescuers train for real-life situations.

“I spent my whole life in the water, and I began to notice that in all the swift-water training, [first responders] were training in a river on a sunny day with no car [and] no victim,” company CEO Bollfrass said. “That’s not how swift-water rescues are [done].”

Flash flooding is the deadliest weather-related event in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And in one-third of swift-water rescues, Bollfrass said it is the rescuers who lose their lives.

Bollfrass said while he was a film producer he would see elaborate movie sets built for action scenes involving fires and trains derailing into rivers only to watch the sets be torn down after filming. He said he wished the sets could stay in place, if only for a day, so first responders could use them to practice their water-rescue skills.

“I just built, in essence, movie sets for water rescue with no camera,” Bollfrass said.

Rescuers practice various scenarios and use boats, crushed cars and body dummies as well as each other to simulate rescues. The facility’s lighting can also go completely dark to replicate a night rescue, Bollfrass said.

“We try to make it as real as possible,” he said.