Coastal Rescue

Issue 7 and Volume 10.

The San Francisco (CA) Fire Department (SFFD) Surf Rescue Team started in 1986 when a core group of firefighters specializing in surf and water rescues foresaw the need for specialized vehicles and equipment (wetsuits, fins, and flotation boards) for such a task. Today, Stations 14, 16, 18, 19, 23, 34, and 51 carry water rescue equipment in their vehicles and two specially modified Ford 150 XLT pickups have the specific task of coastal rescue.1

The SFFD has two 2000 Ford F150 XLT Triton V8 (350 horsepower) extended cab pickups to respond to coastal rescues along the coasts of the San Francisco peninsula. Coastal Rescue One (CR1) operates from Station 34 (Battalion 7, Division 2) whereas Coastal Rescue 2 (CR2) rolls out from Station 18 in the Sunset District (Battalion 8, Division 2). Both Coastal Rescue crews specialize in cliff and surf rescues.

Coastal Rescue Specialization

The two SFFD Coastal Rescue crews specialize in surf rescue (ocean tides and beach), cliff rescue (low-angle and high-angle), and bay rescue (calmer Bay waters). Low-angle rescues are classified by the rescuers being able to walk down to the victim, usually on a slope. High-angle rescues mean that the rescuers cannot walk down to the victim and thus must rappel or climb down (usually against a sheer cliff). The angle of the rescue determines what kinds of ropes and gear are used to attach to the Stokes basket and what methods are used in extracting and hoisting the victim up. San Francisco Bay (bay rescue) has strong currents leading west out toward the Golden Gate whereas Ocean Beach (surf rescue) has 12-foot waves coming in at six-second intervals with rip currents that could take waders out into the cold Pacific Ocean.

In 2013 and 2014, the SFFD answered 87 coastal rescue calls involving everything from a person to a dog as the victim. [See Table 1 for call breakdown.]

The northern and western San Francisco coastlines are federal park property (Golden Gate National Recreation Area) so the SFFD normally works with other government agencies for cliff and surf rescue calls in those locations, including the following:

  • Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) Beach Patrol.
  • United States Park Police and Park Rangers.
  • United States Coast Guard (USCG) rescue boat from Station Golden Gate and HH-65 Dolphin helicopter from San Francisco Airport.
  • Contract ambulance service (if applicable).
  • SFFD Station 51 at the Presidio (if the incident occurs on Presidio Park property).3

Station 34 with Coastal Rescue One and Engine 34

Station 34’s CR1 consists of a 2000 Ford F150 XLT Triton V8 two-door extended cab pickup custom-fitted by SFFD shop #892 and #893 with side utility boxes, cab equipment rack, flashers and spotlights, anchor points and side pipe railings, wheel hubs, and a roof rack. Engine 34 is a 500-gallon Spartan Gladiator pumper with a custom-tailored body made by manufacturer 3D. Both Station 34 vehicles get deployed to coastal rescue calls, but the primary focus of this article centers on the pickup, CR1.

In addition to coastal rescue calls, the four Station 34 firefighters (one company officer and three firefighters) also respond to all daily Station 34-assigned fire, medical, and 911 emergencies with Engine 34. All Station 34 firefighters have cross training in both firefighting and medical (Engine 34) and coastal rescue (CR1) duties. They undergo a one-week surf rescue class entailing swimming and rescuing people, and every two years they recertify their swimming skills. Although not a requirement, most Station 34 firefighters also get rescue system certification by the state of California. They also drill constantly with their vehicles and gear, often running weekly drills in surf rescue swimming and cliff rescue, usually alongside Station 14 firefighters.4

Station 34 (CR1) and Station 18 (CR2) usually both get deployed to coastal rescue incidents with their accompanying Spartan pumper engines. However, Station 18’s F150 pickup does possess a bit more swimmers equipment than Station 34’s pickup. Station 34’s CR1 pickup carries more gear focused on cliff rescues (ropes and climbing equipment) and was originally labeled “Cliff Rescue” on the doors and tailgate before being renamed “Coastal Rescue” (able to perform both cliff and surf rescues) in 2002.

CR1’s main area of responsibility includes Fort Funston (the southwest corner of San Francisco and known for its steep sandy cliffs), Ocean Beach (famous for its deadly rip currents), Fort Point, Baker Beach (cliffs and beach), Land’s End (cliffs, rocks, and surf), and the Presidio (cliffs and surf). Coastal Rescue crews also respond to other hills, cliffs, or buildings within city limits.

For years, CR1 and CR2 were the only coastal rescue crews in San Francisco because none of the beaches had any lifeguards on duty. That all changed when Ocean Beach became part of the Golden Gate National Park system several years back and the National Park Service (NPS) stationed two white pickups, each one with two lifeguards inside, on daytime duty at Ocean Beach. However, even the NPS lifeguards’ advice to waders to not go too far into the water has not diminished the number of rescue calls for CR1.5

Surf Rescue Response

A typical surf rescue call deploys Engine 34 and CR1, CR2 and Engine 18, two hook and ladder trucks (T18 and T14), Engine 14, two battalion chiefs, an ambulance, a rescue squad, and a rescue captain, all from fire stations usually closest to the incident. The number of ambulances deployed depends on the number of victims in the water. SFFD personnel assume the role of primary search and rescue swimmers, with the NPS and the U.S. Coast Guard providing secondary assistance in the search and rescue.

Station 34 CR1, Surf Rescue Operations

CR1 carries most of its surf rescue equipment on its roof rack: three body boards, two surfboards, and two flotation devices. CR1 firefighters often use the flotation devices on the top of the cargo bed utility box as the preferred board for water rescue because it is light and quick to deploy with one person. (CR1 and CR2 used to have two ocean kayaks, but these have been removed from service.) A Stokes basket with flotation inserts on the overhead roof rack allows for the retrieval of the swimmer from the surf. Scuba tanks are not carried aboard CR1 because the primary mission of CR1’s crew is rescue, not body search and recovery. Wetsuits and fins are carried in bags aboard Engine 34 or hanging at the fire station.

When a surf rescue call comes into Station 34, the firefighters have the option of either putting on their wetsuits at the station, jumping into CR1, and driving to the scene dressed (usually done if the location of the victim is known) or placing the wetsuit and fin bags into CR1, driving to the scene, and putting on the wetsuit and fins in the cargo bed of the pickup. Because CR1 only seats two (no one rides in the cargo bed), the other firefighters deploy with Engine 34. Meanwhile, the U.S. Park Police or NPS lifeguards (if on duty), usually the first on scene, tell everyone else to get out of the water to isolate the last known location of the water victim.

En route, the CR1 firefighters make the determination to either park in the parking lot and run onto the beach or take the pickup onto the beach to get closer to the victim and surf, the latter being the preferred method. If the CR1 firefighters decide to take the pickup onto the beach, the driver stops the vehicle and a firefighter gets out and uses the tire deflation valves to reduce all tires to 14 psi to improve traction. On the beach, if possible, CR1 aligns itself parallel to the known location of the victim so that the pickup serves as a visual reference spot to where the victim should be in the water.

Engine 34 and other responding ambulances, vehicles, and hook and ladder trucks stop in the parking lot by the seawall because these vehicles cannot drive on the sand. Their personnel get out and proceed to the waterline with binoculars and rescue equipment.

The two hook and ladder trucks raise their 100-foot aerial ladders and firefighters with binoculars, signal flags, and portable radios climb to the top rungs to scan for victims in the water. The aerial ladders give the rescuers unparalleled and unobstructed views of the beach and ocean from high above. At night, the illuminated ladders can act as a visual reference point to the beach for rescue swimmers out in the water.

The two battalion chiefs establish impromptu incident command posts and coordinate command, control, and communications on scene. Their pickups with cargo bed shells provide a thermal camera, satellite phone, high-intensity portable light, glow sticks, and a digital camera.

The rescue captain (RC) takes the role of the medical supervisor and supports the battalion chiefs. The RC’s pickup with utility box body contains advanced life support equipment, oxygen and airway breathing equipment, and bandaging and splinting equipment.

The rescue squad truck provides all the heavy tools needed for cutting, sawing, lifting, prying, welding, and digging should the situation arise. This rescue truck also contains two thermal cameras, video recording equipment, SCUBA tanks, SCUBA lights, thicker diving wetsuits, flotation boards, and fins and diving equipment for body retrieval and recovery from underwater.

The ambulance contains advanced life support and triage equipment and acts as the primary means of transportation to the hospital. Severe-condition trauma patients normally go to San Francisco General Hospital’s Regional Trauma Center.5

Surf Rescue Daytime Operations

Most surf rescues occur in the daytime when the beach has the most visitors, waders, dog walkers, and surfers. During daylight hours, witnesses on the scene could provide crucial victim location information. As a Station 34 firefighter pointed out, driving to the incident takes no time at all with emergency lights and sirens on, but it can take a lot of time to find the person in the water if the general location isn’t known.6

If the general location of the victim in the water is known, or the victim is spotted, the CR1 rescuers in wetsuits immediately get into the water with their flotation boards or buoys and Stokes basket to mount a rescue. The SFFD rescue swimmers normally deploy, at the minimum, in pairs with more wetsuit rescue swimmers available on land if needed. If the location of the water victim is not known, the rescue swimmers may opt to remain on the beach and scan the water with binoculars until the victim is discovered, thus preserving their body heat and strength until needed for the actual rescue.

In the water, rescue swimmers receive directions to the victim by taking visual cues from the firefighters on the aerials who wave bright orange flags to guide rescuer swimmers to the location of the victim.

On reaching the victim, the rescue swimmers ensure that the victim gets pulled out of the rip current and stays afloat until a USCG or SFFD rigid inflatable boat (RIB) arrives, the safest and preferred method of victim transport instead of swimming the victim back to shore. The RIB transports the victim to China Beach (see Map 1) where redirected ambulances wait for arrival to transport the victim to local hospitals if required. If rescue swimmers do chose to swim the victim back to shore, the awaiting firefighters on land lend their mutual support to ensure a successful recovery of both the victim and rescue swimmers.

To avoid getting caught in rip currents, the rescue swimmers should also return to land via jet ski or RIB instead of swimming back to shore.7

Surf Rescue Nighttime Operations

In the pitch darkness, the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay appear as a cold featureless expanse with no visual reference points. Rescue swimmers could easily get lost in this “black sea.” Therefore, a pole-mounted rotating beacon on the driver’s side of the cargo bed roof rack serves as the highest point on CR1. When CR1 is on the beach, this beacon serves as a reference signal denoting “CR1 and the beach is located here” for rescue swimmers to hone in on. This rotating beacon makes for a simple and effective means of visual light reference communication to swimmers without having to drain CR1’s batteries by running the headlights and flashing emergency lights.

Furthermore, the two ladder trucks’ raised aerials are also illuminated at night to provide a higher beach visual reference point. CR1 also carries small individual strobe lights, handheld flashlights, portable spotlights with tripod mounts, and a two million candle power spotlight and battery packs. CR2 also carries a flare gun and parachute flares that can be fired into the sky to provide overhead illumination.

Although the SFFD battalion chiefs’ pickups, ladder trucks, and the rescue squad truck have thermal cameras that can detect body heat in cold and dark environments, firefighters normally depend on the USCG HH-65 Dolphin helicopter equipped with forward looking infrared (FLIR) and a high-intensity spotlight for nighttime illumination and victim searching.

USCG pilots also wear night vision goggles for seeing in starlight and moonlight conditions. If the USCG aircrew locates the victim in the water, a Coast Guard swimmer may jump from the helicopter, place the victim onto the helicopter’s basket, and winch the victim aboard the helicopter. The helicopter then transports the victim back to land.

Additional SFFD Surf Rescue Resources

In addition to the staffing and land vehicles from responding fire stations and government agencies, if the situation warrants, SFFD could deploy two 2006 Honda Aquatrax jet skis from the yacht harbor, staffed by firefighters from Station 16. Each jet ski could accommodate three people and also tow a floating rescue sled. Waterproof flashlights and glow sticks provide nighttime vehicle illumination and identification. SFFD also has a 25-foot rescue boat manufactured by SAFE Boats for long-term maritime rescue and recovery operations.8

SFFD Cliff Rescue

Station 34 firefighters have training as rescue swimmers and in cliff rappeling. Their specialized F150 XLT extended cab pickup contains the unique equipment to facilitate both rescues. CR1 carries full cliff climbing gear and remains the only SFFD vehicle with 600 feet of rescue rope in a bag–no other SFFD vehicle comes close to carrying that many feet of rope.

Because of the vast expanse of open space, sand dunes, and grassy fields, many visitors use the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to walk their dogs so cliff rescues could involve people, dogs, or both. Therefore, the majority of Station 34’s cliff rescues occur at Fort Funston, Lands End, Sutro Baths, and the Presidio, areas along the San Francisco coastline where rocks and cliffs meet the surf (see Map 1).

The SFFD vehicle response for a cliff rescue usually involves the same vehicles as a surf rescue except that one hook and ladder truck responds to a cliff rescue instead of two.

When CR1 arrives on scene, the firefighters inside assess the victim’s location and then decide how to get as close to the victim as possible. This may involve taking the four-wheel-drive F150 XLT CR1 onto the park trail or getting out with climbing equipment. Other responding emergency vehicles usually park in the parking lot because they lack the small size, traction, and mobility of CR1 to drive on park trails.

Rescue Equipment

On scene, CR1 firefighters then don their harnesses and helmets and grab their rackbar, pulleys, and mariners (RPM) climbing kits from the side utility boxes. The RPM kit contains rackbar, carabiners, D-rings, straps, hooks, pulleys, mariner load release hitch, elastic cords, and fasteners all tucked away in a compact bag. The RPM kit allows the Station 34 firefighter to configure the anchor, main, and safety rope lines to enable hand control over the rope grab. The rackbar maintains tight tension on the main line by weaving the rope through a series of movable steel bars and allowing hand control of the main line for lowering equipment or rescuers. Configurations such as 3:1 or 5:1 pulley systems allow for a controlled leverage and the compounding of mechanical force to hoist equipment, rescuers, and the victim up from below.

To hoist a victim, firefighters assess the cliff’s gradient, judging if it will be a low-angle or high-angle rescue. In a low-angle rescue, the firefighter could walk down a slope toward the victim whereas a high-angle rescue often involves rappeling down a cliff face. The angle of the rescue determines which rescue bag the crew will use to attach the ropes to the Stokes basket, the method of weight transfer (legs or rope), and the rigging method for extracting the victim.9

CR1’s ropes are color-coded and come in three bags of 200-foot yellow rope, three bags of 350-foot orange rope, and one red duffle bag containing 600 feet of rope. The ropes are usually placed on top of the cab’s backseat equipment rack. Firefighters tie two rope lines to the Stokes basket, the main line, and the safety (belay) line, and both lines get tied to the RPM and anchors.

CR1 firefighters often use three nearby objects to serve as anchor points for tying rescue ropes: the CR1 pickup, nearby tree trunks, or pounded-in ground pickets. CR1 could serve as a stationary anchor because it has anchor points located on all sides: two U-shaped bars in the front by the bumper’s fog lights; one anchor point eyelet and the footrest pipe on each side by the cab; the chrome wheel hubs with large holes for looping in ropes; and an anchor point eyelet at the rear bumper in front of the license plate. These vehicle anchor points attach either to the structural steel of the chassis, or with the chrome hubs, to the wheels themselves. Rescue ropes never get tied to the front pushbumper or any other nonapproved vehicle component.

When using CR1 as a rescue rope anchor, a firefighter places the “DANGER: ANCHOR Do Not Move” sign on the seat or taped to the steering wheel. Furthermore, a firefighter always stands by the pickup. This serves two main purposes: One is to ensure that nothing gets stolen from the pickup, which usually has its cab and storage box doors open; and the other is to ensure that no one moves the pickup or tampers with the rescue ropes tied to it.

Nearby trees, especially those at Lands End and the Presidio, could also serve as anchor points with the rescue ropes looping around the thick trunks. Or if CR1 and trees are not nearby, the firefighters may pound in ground stakes (pickets) with a sledgehammer and tie and loop the rescue ropes to the pickets.

Because many of the coastal cliffs along San Francisco lead directly to the Pacific Ocean or surf, cliff rescues may require CR1 firefighters to enter the water if the victim or a dog falls from the cliff into the surf, thus becoming a surf rescue instead of a cliff rescue. Station 34 firefighters could access their wetsuits from accompanying Engine 34 and the flotation boards from CR1 if such a surf rescue situation arises.

Beach (Sand) Rescue Response

Normally, the cargo bed of CR1 does not have any tools in it, but if the rescue involves beach sand, the Station 34 firefighters throw hand shovels into the cargo bed: two scoop shovels, two spade shovels, one square shovel, and one corn broom. Accompanying Engine 34 also carries the same types and number of shovels and brooms, thus giving the four Station 34 firefighters ample tools to dig out any trapped or buried victims.

A sand anchor, essentially an anchor with a hand crank winch, also gets thrown aboard CR1. To use the sand anchor, a firefighter pounds it into the sand and then hooks up the winch cable to the stuck object. The firefighter then cranks the stuck object out of the sand.10

Special thanks to the Station 34 firefighters and the National Park Service for the photos of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.


1. SFFD Water Rescue Operations PDF, January 2008.
2. San Francisco Fire Department Public Affairs Office, November 2014.
3. SFFD Water Rescue Operations PDF, January 2008.
4. Interview with Station 34 firefighters, November 2014.
5. SFFD Water Rescue Operations PDF, January 2008.
6. Interview with Station 34 firefighters, November 2014.
7. SFFD Water Rescue Operations PDF, January 2008.
8. Ibid.
9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx65WS-r7M0 RPM video.
10. Interview with Station 34 firefighters, November 2014.