Planning & Preparation for Swiftwater Operations

Issue 5 and Volume 7.

With spring and summer quickly approaching, the threat of heavy rains causing swiftwater incidents should be on every firefighter’s mind. If it has ever rained where you live, then you face the possibility of responding to a swiftwater incident—and it doesn’t have to be at your local stream or creek. City streets and innocent-looking drainage ditches can quickly turn deadly given the right amount of rain.

Every fire company should have a basic understanding of swiftwater operations and the dangers that accompany them. More often than not, the first responders to arrive at a swiftwater incident are engine or ladder companies, or local law enforcement—not highly trained and well-equipped water rescue teams.

Following are a few basic items to review as “swiftwater season” approaches.

Most fire departments only have to get their swiftwater gear out a few times a year. If you don’t carry swiftwater gear on your apparatus regularly, make sure it’s ready when the rainy weather sets in and your chances of being deployed to a water rescue increases. If you’ve had an extremely wet period and the ground is saturated, but more heavy rain is predicted, it’s a good time to prepare.

You should also review places within your response area where swiftwater incidents are most likely to occur. Although a swiftwater incident can occur anywhere water collects along streets or under overpasses, most cities have locations that historically flood when storm drains stop up. You probably already know where these are in your response area because you’ve responded to incidents at those locations previously.

These are great places to start your planning. Take your crew to these locations and preplan equipment needs, downstream locations to post secondary rescuers and whether you should use other methods to remove victims from the water, such as the reach of an aerial ladder.

Get Out of Firefighting Gear
We spend a good deal of time preaching to our firefighters about how important it is to wear their structural personal protective equipment (PPE). Swiftwater is one of the exceptions. When we’re facing a water rescue, we must get out of our structural gear and don personal flotation devices (PFD) and water-rescue style helmets.

Even if your department doesn’t respond to many incidents around water, this is a great time to discuss how your ability to swim or stay afloat is limited by wearing bunker gear that rapidly takes on water.

Learning to remove yourself from the water in full bunker gear is a great survival skill, but it’s much easier to simply avoid using your structural PPE as expensive raingear. Wear the correct PPE for water-related incidents.

Stay Out of the Water (If You Can)
If you can get the victim out without getting in the water yourself, do it. Whether you’re a trained and equipped swiftwater technician or just an engine company member with a throw bag, don’t go in unless you MUST. Don’t put more possible victims in the water without good reason. And if you do have a good reason, you must outline the rules of engagement based on a clear risk assessment of the situation.

To help determine whether you need to enter the water, complete a good size-up, as you would for any incident. Although there are a number of factors that need to be included in a swiftwater size-up, one that’s most often overlooked and needs to be addressed every time we train on water-related topics is which way is the water moving—up or down? Most swiftwater incidents occur because the water rises quickly due to a downpour of rain. In turn, it may also drop quickly, making a non-event of what was a very dangerous situation just a few minutes earlier. On the other hand, if it’s still raining and the water is rising, or it’s raining upstream from your incident, you may have to more quickly mitigate the incident.

Downstream Safeties
As soon as possible, get as many secondary rescuers downstream as you can. They should be equipped with throw bags to serve as a backup if the victims are carried downstream before they can be safely removed. The use of throw bags is a fundamental skill that every fire company should master, even with minimal water-rescue training.

Following are two company-level skills to practice with throw bags:

  • Accurate throwing. Using your water-rescue throw bags, go out to the parking lot and practice throwing the bags at a clean, empty, large trashcan. The goal is to get the bag into the can with accuracy.
  • Leading the intended target. If someone is being swept away by swiftwater, they can be moving very quickly. You must throw the rope bag to where they’re going to be, not where they’re at now. Throwing behind the moving victim is a common mistake (and also the reason you should have as many secondary rescuers as possible, to give you several chances, or throws). To practice this skill, have one member walk forward while another member throws the bag ahead of them. The bag should lead the “victim” just enough to get the line in front of them as they walk—just like throwing a pass to someone who’s running.

Still Waters
Just as the old saying goes, “Still waters run deep.” Don’t let still water fool you; walking into it with your bunker gear on can be extremely dangerous, because you don’t know how deep it is or what’s under the surface. When working in flooded streets, always use a long tool, like a pike pole or rubbish hook, to probe ahead of you.

Note: As water rises quickly, it will often push manhole covers up from the street, exposing the openings into the storm drainage system. These openings are extremely dangerous to the rescuer or victim who’s being led out of the water toward dry land. Probe as you go and do so both ways—in and out—because it’s hard to follow the same path.

Never Use a Single Anchor Point
I’ve responded to many swiftwater incidents over the years and have seen two near-miss incidents where firefighters became the victims themselves. Fortunately, neither resulted in a line-of-duty death, but they sure made a believer of me about the dangers of swiftwater.

Both incidents involved firefighters tying themselves off with one rope to a single anchor point. When they were swept off their feet, they were pulled under the surface of the water and it became almost impossible to pull them back to shore. Think of a plastic bobber on the end of a fishing line being pulled behind a speeding boat. Can you see the bobber as its being pulled?

The point: Never tie yourself off to a single anchor point. There are safe ways to use rope—but that’s another Quick Drill.

A Final Word
Bottom line: Your company must be aware of the dangers of swiftwater incidents and know how to respond without becoming victims themselves. To accomplish this, you must train and drill before your rainy season begins. Don’t wait on the dark clouds to start training.