Tech Rescue

Water-Rescue Near Misses

Issue 5 and Volume 7.

With fair weather setting in, the waterways in our communities will begin to teem with people seeking exercise, relief from the heat, and recreation. And their abilities to handle themselves in the water will vary as widely as the types of waterways involved. Some associated hazards: heavy rainfall, water temperature, currents, strainers, eddies and whirlpools—not to mention what happens when people mix water activities with alcohol.

Further, rescuers are not immune to waterway dangers. Those engaged in water rescue know that extensive training and constant monitoring of the water they work in and around are essential for maintaining proficiency. It is also critical to understand the power of water and to respect the forces of nature.

Report #08-611
“The incident was a car in the river with a 2-year-old and a 13-year-old still missing. River current conditions prevented a complete vehicle recon. We were briefed that visibility was zero and the current was extremely swift. I used my hands and body to plane below the surface. I located a wheel and felt that this would be the best attachment point for the rope. The rope was so taut that I could not release it from the Prusik. I suddenly felt an acceleration of force on my body. The force was strong enough to put a strain on my chest harness, which constricted with each exhalation. I simultaneously ditched my 35-lb. weight belt and inflated my buoyancy control device. I was suddenly on the surface still unable to breathe until I was brought back to the river bank where the river flow was markedly slower.”

Report #11-229
“Crews were dispatched to a reported person ‘stuck on an island’ in the middle of a river. The river was flowing approximately 2,600 cubic feet/second. Rescue swimmers were instructed to stay river right as river left was considered dangerous to search. Downstream safeties were in place along with a secondary downstream containment group. Command ordered all swimmers out of the water, and to exit the water on river right. Two rescue swimmers did not see the exit point and accidently proceeded to river left. Command received a report of a firefighter caught in a strainer on river left. Crews from both the fire department and the local county dive team were able to throw a ‘rope lasso’ onto the trapped firefighter and safely pull the firefighter from the strainer to shore.”

The risks we take when conducting water-rescue operations must be backed up with contingencies to address the unexpected. The powerful forces at work during water-rescue events can quickly overcome even the most accomplished and experienced water-rescue technicians. As such, consider the following when preparing for your next water-rescue operation:

  • Monitor the water hazards in your area daily. Water levels, tides, volume and speed are constantly changing. Monitoring should include a visual inspection whenever possible so you can understand what the numbers actually look like.
  • If your water-rescue assets comprise multiple, but separate disciplines (i.e., fire, rescue squad, law enforcement, lifeguard, Coast Guard), there must be joint training, mutually agreed-to standard operating procedures and standardized equipment.
  • Review operational modes carefully and work to prepare mentally for the tough decisions that you’ll face. Rescue operations require one approach: high-risk action based on the goal of saving a viable life. Recovery operations require a more cautious approach with lower risk exposure.

In Closing
The themes from both reports are clear: Regular training is essential to survival. Remember tips you learned from more experienced personnel; this will pay dividends when you are in the moment and under stress. And keep your cool under pressure to promote survival.