Preplanning Swiftwater Rescues

Issue 5 and Volume 4.

April showers may bring beautiful May flowers, but they can also create treacherous creek and river conditions, along with flash floods that generate emergency calls. These calls can range from nothing more than someone stuck in a vehicle that has become surrounded by relatively calm water to multiple people who have driven their vehicles into a flash-flooded area and are now unable to fight the fast-moving current to escape. What’s worse, the call could be for someone who has been swept downstream by a creek, wash or river, making it harder to establish a single location to prepare for the rescue.

And it’s not only heavy rains and severe storms that create these dangerous situations. In December 2008 a major water main break created instant chaos in Montgomery County, Md. (For a detailed account of the rescue, see “A Success Story” by Battalion Chief Jim Resnick, FireRescue May 2009.) What does this mean for you? Any fire department in the country could be called to a water rescue—so be prepared!

This article will focus on general first responder water rescue and flash flooding. It will not delve into ocean rescue situations, which can require somewhat different skills and equipment.

The Dangers of Water

Moving water is a very powerful force that is easily underestimated, even by firefighters. Water weighs 62.4 lbs. per cubic foot and typically flows downstream at 6–12 mph. Six inches of water can sweep a person off their feet; only 1–2 feet of water can cost lives; and 2 feet of water can float a car.

When a vehicle stalls in the water, the water’s momentum is transferred to the car. For each foot the water rises, 500 lbs. of lateral force is applied to the car. Now factor in buoyancy. According to the U.S. National Weather Service Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services, for each foot the water rises up the side of the car, the car displaces 1,500 lbs. of water. In effect, the car weighs 1,500 lbs. less for each foot the water rises. The results can be disastrous.

According to the National Weather Service, in June 1990, in Shadyside, Ohio, 4 inches of rain in less than 2 hours produced a 30-foot-high wall of water that ultimately killed 26 people and caused $6–8 million in damage. In June 2001, flooding from Tropical Storm Allison killed 22 people and caused more than $5 billion in damage in the Houston area.

Other dangers: In many cases, flood waters are extremely cold, even when the weather is warm or hot. Swift-moving flood waters can be deceiving, with water on the top moving slowly and rapid undercurrents that can trip up and carry away unprepared rescuers. These same undercurrents can wash away roadways, providing hidden traps for personnel and apparatus attempting to enter the area for rescues.

Swiftwater incidents may seem relatively routine for some departments, especially those located on or near a body of water. However, for many other departments, these situations can prove quite challenging. Every fire department must have procedures in place to provide for the prompt rescue of individuals trapped in high-water or fast-moving water situations, all while ensuring safety for the rescuers.

Do Your Homework

You must have the proper procedures, training and equipment to handle any type of swiftwater incident.

Consider all your potential resources, including boats, special rescue equipment (ropes, rope guns, ladders, survival suits, etc.), dive/water rescue units, EMS units and helicopters that have rescue capabilities. Get familiar with specialized resources, their capabilities and availability. Even if swiftwater rescuers/boats are available, you need to know if they can operate in swiftwater situations or if their use is limited to calm water conditions. Additionally, can aerial apparatus operate at low or declined angles, and how much weight can they support at that angle?

Rescue personnel should wear personal floatation devices (PFDs), which are designed to keep personnel afloat, even when unconscious, in rough water situations. You must understand the limitations of the types of PFDs. Research the types of PFDs and cold-water suits you need prior to purchase. Cold-water suits should be worn by personnel operating in the water. They keep personnel afloat and protect against hypothermia. Are your firefighters prepared to operate near water with PFDs and not their turnout gear? If not, you’ll need to start training on how to operate under these conditions.

Tip: You can store water rescue gear in bags that are kept at the station and placed on the apparatus when flooding conditions threaten.


Like all calls, incident size-up begins at dispatch. All responding personnel must monitor radio communications and weather conditions to get a solid understanding of the situation and the risks involved in order to prevent any additional individuals from becoming entrapped in the high or fast-moving water.

It’s important to triage requests for assistance during flooding conditions. There may be people “stuck” in disabled vehicles in ankle-deep water that’s barely moving, as well as people who are trapped in a fast current and moving swiftly downstream. Clearly, the latter case deserves priority—and some quick thinking.

The planning officer should track changing weather conditions to determine if the situation will improve or deteriorate. If the victim is in a stable position and uninjured, and the water level is projected to recede, it might be simpler and safer to have them stay in place until the flooding subsides, all while maintaining contact and providing moral support. If the victim’s condition is unstable and/or the water is projected to rise, the need for rescue may be imminent. Note: If the victim shows signs of hypothermia or another medical condition, make the rescue as soon as possible.

Another factor to consider: unit placement. Units should be positioned as close to the scene as possible without actually entering the water or putting themselves at risk. Determine if rescuers can be positioned on both banks on either side of the incident as well as downstream—an ideal position. Note: Don’t forget to consider mutual aid or additional assistance.

Finally, the incident commander will need to make a decision as to which method of extricating is best for the victim, while minimizing risk to the rescuers. It may be via helicopter or by personnel in a boat. Putting rescuers in the water should be the last option considered.

Water-Rescue Principles

There are four principles of water rescue: reach, throw, row and go—and they usually occur in that order.

Use long, handled tools, such as pike poles, to try to reach victims. Ensure you have ropes with life rings or other floating devices that can be thrown to victims. Even air-filled objects, such as footballs or soccer balls, can be thrown to victims so they have something to hold onto while in the water. You’ll also want rope available to tie off any rescuer entering the water so they can be retrieved quickly. Note: Rescuers should carry a knife so they can quickly cut themselves free of any entanglement that threatens them.

You can push, motor or row boats to victims if necessary, but rescuers entering the water, even in boats, should only go when properly protected with head and foot protection and flotation gear. If survival or flotation suits are available, wear them! Also ensure that your boots are tied tightly to reduce the amount of water, hydrocarbons, chemicals or other hazards that can get in.

Boats can be extremely dangerous in fast water rescues, especially if personnel are not fully familiar with operating them under those conditions. Propellers on outboard motors can become entangled in branches, vines or other debris or even in fences in higher floodwaters, disabling the boat’s power and creating the need for additional rescues.

If a decision is made to attempt to access victims directly from a piece of apparatus, select a larger piece of apparatus with maximum ground clearances for this operation. Lower vehicle exhausts can become clogged with water, disabling the vehicle. Large dump trucks or front-end loaders with vertical exhausts may be good resources for this. Some communities even maintain ex-military vehicles for flood duty.

Remember that portions of the roadway may be washed out, so if it’s at all possible, check the integrity of the ground before moving a large rescue vehicle into the area. Rescuers must also constantly check footing in front of them using a pole or other device.

Finally, safety officers should be positioned upstream to monitor currents and floating debris that could pose a hazard to the rescuers.

Critical Rescues

In more critical rescue situations, victims may be floating rapidly down fast-moving streams. Firefighters should not attempt to enter the water to try to catch these victims. Instead, extend a pike pole or other device for the victims to grab. Ropes, air-charged hoselines or other equipment can be extended across the stream to “catch” the victim. Inflatable devices can be dropped from overhead bridges or extended via ladders or poles. If a victim is trapped underwater in a drain or culvert, firefighters may need to divert water flow from upstream or possibly draft to lower the water level, discharging the water to a safe location.


Water rescues are one of the more challenging emergency calls we’ll get. Departments that have not prepared or preplanned for these incidents may be quite surprised by the enormity of the situation—and the results can be deadly. On the other hand, departments that have planned and trained properly for these incidents could find themselves in a starring role in a TV documentary!