CFS Press

Five Ways to Survive a Swiftwater Rescue
by Slim Ray

Swiftwater rescue is dangerous, no doubt about it. In flood-filled 1995, at least three firefighters died while attempting in-water rescues, and several other rescue personnel narrowly escaped with their lives. Sadly, most of these tragedies were due to lack of knowledge and training. Swiftwater rescue often gets shunted off to specialist outfits like dive teams, or lumped in with very generalized water and ice rescue programs. To many agencies, "water rescue" means dragging the lake for a drowning victim. While these may be the most common scenarios, they are not necessarily the most dangerous.

Swiftwater is different, and far more deadly. Why?

First, the force of moving water is deceptively high, and it increases exponentially with the speed and volume of the water. A six mph current pushes against a person's body with a force of about 134lbs, but a twelve mph current pushes with a force of 538lbs, or four times as much. Thus, a person pushed against an obstacle, or held by a rope in the current, is in grave danger. Rescue boats, including hovercraft, can suddenly flip in the powerful current differentials of a flooded river.

Second, things happen very quickly. Agencies are often confronted with a moving incident as a victim (and often would-be rescuers as well) wash down rivers and flood channels at speeds of up to fifteen miles an hour, often crossing jurisdictional boundaries in the process.

Third, some common safety practices, like the use of lifelines and safety tethers, are downright dangerous in moving water. Safety gear and personal protective equipment intended for other disciplines can do more harm than good in a swiftwater rescue.

Because of this, and since swiftwater rescues make up only a very small proportion of most rescue agencies' calls, it's easy to get "sucker punched." One recent study showed that, over the past 20 years, water incidents accounted for 1% of total firefighter deaths. This may not sound like much until you consider that water rescue calls typically make up only 1-2% of the total incidents of a typical fire company. The conclusion is that while these incidents may be infrequent, they are extremely dangerous.

Before they can even consider making effective rescues, public safety personnel (a broad category including fire, EMS, rescue squads and law enforcement) must be able to ensure their own safety to a reasonable degree. Many of these fatal accidents and near misses could have been prevented by having a basic knowledge of swiftwater and by observing a few simple rules.

Rule 1. DON'T wear turnouts or other bulky service clothing. Firefighting turnouts work very well to protect firefighters from heat and flaming debris, but were never meant to be worn in the water. While it's a myth that heavy clothing will "drag you down," it is true that bulky, heavy, water-soaked clothing is hard to swim in and gives little thermal protection in the water. Any would-be swiftwater rescuers are strongly advised to wear a wet- or drysuit for thermal and physical protection while in the water. Law enforcement personnel should also leave firearms and similar gear on shore.
Rule 2. DO wear a life jacket. A Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is the most important piece of personal protective equipment for rescues in or near the water. While any PFD is better than none, one meant for swiftwater is much better. Choose a snug-fitting US Coast Guard Type III or V designed for whitewater boating or rafting with 25-35lbs of flotation. Avoid ski vests, Type I PFDs (too bulky), and Type II "horsecollars," since these last have a nasty habit of coming off over your head. And finally, buckle it before you go-an unsecured PFD is no PFD at all!
Rule 3. DON'T enter moving water except as a last resort. Any rescuer who enters swift water-in a boat or by swimming- greatly increases his personal risk level. This is especially true of untrained personnel, who often have to be rescued themselves.
Before entering the water, consider other alternatives first. Use the simple mnemonic RETHROG-REach, THrow, Row, Go. Unless you have had swiftwater-specific training, it's a good idea to stay with reach and throw. The first step might be to try to talk a victim into self rescue. Often an obvious route of escape will be overlooked. Or perhaps you can reach them with a pike pole or paddle and pull them to safety. Or you may be able to throw them a rope and pull to shore. These options are much safer than going in the water. Yet all too often, a rescuer's first instinct is to jump in.
Rule 4. DON'T tie yourself to a rope if you do go in the water. A safety tether may seem like a good idea when entering a flooded stream. It is not! Quite often a tethered rescuer gets swept off his feet, pushed underwater, and held there by the current. Remember, that force may be several hundred pounds-far too much for him to release the knot or to be hauled back upstream. Two firefighters died this way in 1995.
Rule 5. DO get appropriate training before an incident. "Water rescue" is a huge and diverse field, and rescuers sometimes make the mistake of thinking that because they are expert in one area, they are expert in them all. There is no substitute for hands-on, swiftwater-specific training with competent instructors. The emerging professional standard is that anyone in a public safety agency (fire, police, EMS) should have at least awareness-level swiftwater training (first responder is better) in order to protect themselves on site. Anyone whose duties may include actual swiftwater rescues should have at least technician-level training (e.g. Swiftwater Rescue Technician I), and incident commanders should have specialist (e.g. Swiftwater Rescue Technician II) training.
Flooding is probably the most common natural disaster. It knows no season nor region. Yet too often the need for training is ignored until after a high-profile incident. This article can do no more than identify some of the more obvious, avoidable mistakes that have killed rescuers in the past. To insure the safety of rescuers and the effective rescue of others, some form of swiftwater rescue training and awareness is essential.

© Slim Ray All rights reserved

Notes From the Field: Lessons Learned on Flood Management
by Slim Ray

(A heavily edited version of this article appeared in October 2001 issue of Fire-Rescue Magazine. This is the original.)

There are two kinds of knowledge. One is the theories that wonks like me spin in books and magazines. The other is a little harder to find and has to be distilled from the folks out there in the field who are actually doing rescues. Floods have much in the news lately, so I decided to call up a couple of people to get some tips on what they'd done when the water started to rise in their jurisdiction.

BRRRRING! My first call was to Tim Gallagher in College Station, Texas. Gallagher, who retired as a Battalion Chief from the Phoenix, AZ, fire department, is now the Director for Texas Task Force One. Things were going pretty well with the normal missions that this USAR team does, such as building collapse rescues, but Gallagher and some others wanted to look at another vital area — flood response. Three years ago the task force had been sent down to a massive flood in Del Rio, and found that while they were ready to rescue people from collapsed buildings, they didn't really have the equipment or training to do flood rescues.

Gallagher, who'd had some experience managing floods and teaching swiftwater rescue in Phoenix, convened a working group on flood rescue, with an eye on expanding the scope of the state's USAR teams' missions. Flooding was, after all, a major problem in Texas and was a lot more common than structural collapses. Their idea was to effectively use this and other existing resources rather than to create new ones. The group decided to use a 24-person strike team, organized around a "quick-strike" regional response model. "We had to have the ability to bring in teams from other areas of the state, since a regional flood would effectively tie up all local resources. Mutual aid won't work if the guy next to you is flooded, too."

Texas did have one major advantage, though— it has a large number of trained swiftwater rescue technicians, probably more than any other state but California. So individual training was less of an issue than it would have been in most places.

Gallagher approached the local fire chiefs to see what conditions they would need to support the effort and participate in the regional response plan. They wanted:

  • A uniform incident command (ICS) system
  • To keep their people together
  • To work in fire-company sized units of 4-5 people if possible
  • To send only trained people
  • To send only one squad because of local requirements & staffing considerations.
  • For the same reason they could not send equipment

"We decided, then, that the state would provide the equipment: each strike team would get a 24 ft trailer with enough equipment to make a 24-person strike team self-sufficient for 72 hours." This included boats, PPE (including life jackets), sleeping gear, MREs, water, tents, rescue gear etc. "We received a lot of support from the state—they are serious about this and put their money where their mouth is."

There were a few other problems that were unique to the Lone Star state, though. "One major problem that we had to deal with was fire ants. Being from Arizona this was something new for me. These things get into the trees during floods and make rescues more urgent, since people can't stay in a tree with them very long."

Gallagher's team came up with a response model that emphasized:

  • fast response
  • a regional response
  • that departments send trained people, not equipment, which makes for a faster mobilization.
  • a "rolling mobilization"—people are deployed early as they become available instead of all at once

The basic tactical unit is the 24-person strike team, comprised of four squads of five trained individuals each plus a headquarters. The team headquarters consists of a team leader and an assistant team leader; a logistics specialist, and technical support specialist. Each squad has:

  • Strike Team leader
  • assistant Strike Team leader
  • paramedic in each rescue squad
  • logistics specialist
  • technical support specialist —someone to act as the communications specialist, small tools repairman, and jack of all trades.

Just before the start of hurricane season—on May 31st to June 1st—TEEX conducted two 24-hour training exercises for mixed strike teams. This turned out to be a good call, since Tropical Storm Allison visited Houston the next week, causing record floods. "We had it driven home to us on game day how valuable this exercise was—everyone knew each other and had worked together."

With the flood in progress, Gallagher had to get people into Houston—fast. So he rounded up a Texas Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook, loaded the Ft. Worth strike team into it, and told them "head toward Houston —I'll let you know where to land." Everyone else was told to head south by road and they'd be told where to stage en route. "One lesson I learned there," he admits, "was to get callback numbers for everyone so we can communicate with them while en route to the scene."

Unfortunately, air space management broke down as more and more helicopters from different agencies showed up, many on different frequencies and with different operating procedures. Low clouds and poor visibility further hampered air operations. Gallagher initially tried to manage air space operations because no one else seemed to be doing it, but the situation remained less than satisfactory throughout the operation. "We didn't manage it as well as we could have," he conceded. "We know that we need to have better air space management, and we're having a meeting shortly to work things out with all agencies involved so it won't happen again."

Another problem that emerged was that of finding addresses in the city. People from out of town naturally had the greatest difficulties, but the flood waters made it a problem even for natives. Neighborhoods looked completely different, and many street signs were under water. "Next time I'm going to have every squad carry a GPS so that they can locate themselves and tell others."

Once on the ground attempts to manage the situation on a call-by-call basis broke down almost immediately. Teams sent to a specific location kept finding people along the way who needed to be rescued. "They were doing it all on the fly," said Gallagher. "We had to go to a sector basis, which meant we'd give teams a sector and tell them to rescue everyone in their sector and keep us informed of how it was going. This worked pretty well and I think we'll do it that way next time."

Communications kept breaking down, adding another major complication. The cellular system quickly became overwhelmed with calls and had no emergency override, and much of phone infrastructure was flooded and inoperable. There were also problems with radio system. "I was getting pretty nervous because I needed to hear some voices from the people out there. I tend to be a mother hen in these types of situations and needed to know that they were doing okay." In the end the only thing that worked reliably were satellite phones, however these are bulky and very expensive to use. New supplies are on the way: "Since that event we're spent some $34,000 on new communications equipment."

There were a few other lessons as well: "Next time I'll reduce my span of control." Because of the incremental way the deployment was done, Gallagher ended up running 13 squads himself. "That was my own fault," he said. "Next time I'll go to a semi-independent strike team of four and make my job a little easier, as well as making for a more effective operation."

After talking to Gallagher about the big picture I called down to flood ground zero. The Rescue Chief of the Houston Fire Department, Joe Clark, filled me in on the details. "We were overwhelmed," he said." My family's lived here for four generations and we've never seen anything like this. There were parts of the city that flooded that have never flooded before. To give you an idea of how bad it was, we had a swiftwater river running through one of the highest parts of the city, and four inches of water running through my station." Clark himself was out of town when it hit. There had been some minor flooding associated with tropical storm Allison earlier in the week, but the water was going down. What he didn't know was that Allison was doubling back for another swipe at an already-saturated Houston. "Looking back," he admitted, "maybe I got a little complacent. We have floods here just about every year and we thought we could handle it."

On Friday night, June 8th, it started raining in earnest – rainfall peaked at 5 ft per hour that night and some parts of the city got 32 ft for the week—and all hell broke loose. "By midnight Friday we'd pretty much ceased to respond. We were out of units and all the roads were flooded. Things were like that from about 6pm Friday to Saturday afternoon. For about 11 hours the city was basically under water." The floods hit the city hard, taking 22 lives, 11 of them in moving water incidents. It cost insurance companies over 650 million dollars, making it by some estimates the third most costly disaster in US history.

Several factors hampered resource deployment. One was incident triage. "We need to find a better way to filter the dispatch calls," said Clark, "so that we're getting units to the calls with people in trees and on the tops of cars, and not for flooded basements. We're looking at dispatcher training and using the Natural Disaster Information Cards." (for more info see

"Next time, we'll try to put people out there beforehand, before all the roads flood." Those same flooded roads also kept personnel on other shifts from getting in. Nor were enough trained rescuers available. Although Houston has a 3200-person department, it has only a 40-person technical rescue team (three shifts of eight) with water rescue training and equipment. There used to be a voluntary water rescue certification but this was defunded four years ago. "One thing I'd say we learned was that everyone should have at least first responder training. Whether the city will fund it is another thing."

Clark had high praise for the Texas Task Force One. "Those guys were great. They came in when we really needed them and did an excellent job. They made over 1100 documented rescues that we couldn't do." In addition, Clark said, Coast Guard helicopters made some 70 aerial rescues.

"I'm definitely going to get some more boats. Our Zodiac rafts didn't hold up too well, mostly because of debris and because people don't get enough experience handling them. We're going to try to go to four-cycle engines, too. No more mixing oil and gas. We now have 15 boats – 5 Zodiacs and 10 hard hull boats. We just didn't have enough boats in the right places. Next time we'll try to preposition them and have two Zodiacs per company instead of one."

Chief Clark gave high marks to the flood predictions of Harris County weathermen. "They had mostly good predictions of where it was going to flood, but Houston is just unpredictable." Although the meteorological system was overworked, it continued to function, giving valuable led time to managers.

To finish up I called Battalion Chief Tim Rogers of the Charlotte, NC, Fire Department. He has been through several floods as both a company officer and a chief, including service in the Floyd floods in 1999. Although he says he's been "busier than a tick in a dog pound," he agreed to slow down long enough to share some of the things he's learned about managing floods. "Probably the biggest lesson I've learned after several floods is that you somehow have to get ahead of the event and stay there. If you once get behind, you'll never get caught up." Rogers emphasized that once streets flood and become impassable, the rescuers' job becomes much harder. "There is a lot to do," he said. "You have to put barricades up, people have to be evacuated or rescued, and your own people have to get where they need to be. This takes time."

Another vital question he's found that must be answered in any flood is "where does the water go?" What areas flood and how much rain does it take to flood them? How fast does this happen? How does development of places like malls affect the drainage? This particularly a problem in expanding urban areas like Charlotte-Mecklenburg where new development goes on at a rapid pace.

Chief Rogers emphasizes that "it's vitally important to get all the players together beforehand." These players include the fire service, police agencies (both city police and sheriff), storm water engineers, mapping agencies like US Geological Survey, and weather prediction people. "Once this happens, though, you can figure out in advance what areas will flood and how much rain it's going to take. As a result, we now have a thirty minute window for critical areas to predict flooding and get people out there. This sounds like a lot, but in a big city it's really not a lot of time to alert people and get them where they're needed. "We look for trigger events," he said. "We can now tell that a certain amount of rain in a certain place causes a certain level of flooding, and therefore a certain level of response and resource commitment. This allows us to push resources out to an area before they're actually needed."

It's worth comparing the gist of what both men have found out by experience—get all the players to the table; train together before the event; and know where the water's going and what a given amount of it in a certain place will do. Get ahead of the event by anticipating problems and getting ahead of them. These are all common sense measures, but unfortunately all too seldom done. However, as more information on managing floods becomes available, better management practices will result.

Copyright Slim Ray 2002 All Rights Reserved


• An average of 200 Americans drown each year in flash flooding-more than in airline crashes or domestic terrorism. Flash flooding is the top weather-related killer, ahead of earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

• The most common causes of drowning in swiftwater are cars crossing flooded roadways and being swept away, and children playing near flooded creeks. Many others are would-be citizen rescuers.

• An average of three professional rescuers drown each year while attempting a swiftwater rescue. Forty-five have died this way since 1983.

• In 1995 three firefighters died attempting swiftwater rescues, compared to fifteen who died during structural fires. There were also at least 8-10 "near misses," including five here in Asheville. Considering the relatively small number of calls, swiftwater rescue is probably the most dangerous thing a firefighter can do.

Most rescuer deaths and near misses are preventable. They are almost always due to lack of knowledge about the special dangers of swiftwater, inappropriate personal protective equipment (i.e. turnouts instead of a PFD), and lack of proper equipment and training.

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