Tech Rescue

Effectively Managing Risk at a Swiftwater Rescue Incident

Issue 7 and Volume 9.

Experience can be a tremendous teacher. Every time you and your company respond to a call, you are building “slides” in your slide tray of knowledge, which you will unconsciously rely on the next time you face a similar situation. There truly is no substitute for experience. The question: Is it enough?

Chief Brunacini reminds us that we should never go to an incident without the knowledge needed to pass the test that is going to be laid before us. Failing a written examination in the comfort of a classroom may have limited consequences; the impact of failing to be prepared after the tones go off is radically different.

You know the old question: A firefighter goes to one fire every year. Do they have 20 years of experience or one year repeated 20 times? With 20 opportunities to demonstrate competency in performing the duties associated with extinguishing such a fire, the individual may garner a reputation as a great company officer. If this is the ceiling of their knowledge, they’re creating an unrealistic perception that they’ll be able to bring their firefighters home alive from every other type of call.

A Swiftwater Example

You’re the company officer of the first-arriving crew to a swiftwater rescue call. You see three teenagers sitting on top of a large SUV in the middle of a torrent of water, perhaps 50 feet from your closest position. What risks are you going to take to save their lives? What is your plan? You immediately revert to your experience, looking into the slide tray of your memory marked “swiftwater rescue” and find … nothing. Armed with your desire to save lives and your willingness to do “whatever it takes,” standing and watching is implausible and unrealistic.

The challenge for the competent officer is to understand the circumstances and actions under which taking tremendous risk in a purposeful, calculated way can be accomplished by capitalizing on training, knowledge and experience in the ideal combination for the safest possible outcome. In this case, consider the following actions as a first-responding company with an awareness of swiftwater hazards:

  • Establish command and announce a staging location for responding units.
  • Ensure all responding crews wear proper PPE: personal flotation devices (PFDs) and water-rescue helmets.
  • Confirm the incident location and number of victims. Talk to the victims and maintain visual and voice contact.
  • Deploy an upstream observer team to watch for hazards in the water that might impact the incident.
  • Deploy downstream observers/rescue teams equipped with throw bags, throw disks, flashlights and pike poles to make non-entry-rescue efforts. Consider the use of air-filled hoselines if possible.
  • Send additional resources further downstream at least ½ mile from the incident.
  • Provide updated information to swiftwater team personnel trained to the technician level responding to the incident.
  • Consider the use of an aerial device as a non-entry means to reach the victims.
  • Do not tie ropes to any rescuer or victim.

From a chief officer perspective, swiftwater incidents are perhaps the most treacherous event we handle. They are tremendously high risk and rarely occur, offering limited opportunity for experience-based learning. The danger in swiftwater is that the overwhelming majority of dedicated but untrained firefighters have no concept of the dangers of water, and because they can swim perceive that they are capable of functioning far above their actual level of training.

Firefighters are action-oriented and when lives hang in the balance, they will do whatever it takes. Our most solemn obligation is to learn from the sacrifice of our fellow firefighters, including Robert Crump who died in the line of duty at a swiftwater incident in 2000. Before you are handed the test, make sure you have studied, trained and practiced to pass it.

Special thanks to Lt. John C. Cain of the AACOFD Special Operations Team who contributed to this article

For additional training, see “Preplanning Swiftwater Rescues on FirefighterNation.com: http://tinyurl.com/k7275rs