Are you ready?

CarolinaFireJournal - DAVID PEASE — REDS Team
04/26/2010 -

As the hurricane and storm season approaches, we need to evaluate our capabilities to perform swiftwater rescues. Of course, one major factor is your equipment. Do you have the required equipment for the task, and is it in proper working order. The next big question — “are my rescuers properly trained to use our equipment.” Having poorly trained folks with the best equipment would be like having a half million dollar fire engine and no one knows how to flow water out of it. It could prove to be a sad and embarrassing situation. So let’s look at some ways we can prepare our department for water rescue.


Some of the best swimmers have lost their lives in swiftwater attempting rescues. Never underestimate the capability of moving water.

There are some departments that do no water rescue or recovery operations, so they may feel that there is no reason to worry about training in these disciplines. But considering that you may still be called to respond to a water-related emergency or recovery in your area, does put you at the scene and involved, even if indirectly. You may be asked to assist with dragging operations and possibly running a recovery boat when the operations tend to drag on for some time. It is also nice to be able to help with loading and unloading watercraft and handling equipment. This would be extremely helpful if divers have responded to help with the recovery operations. With swiftwater operations you may be asked to help with running lines, moving boats, or assisting with equipment. My point is, even if you do not respond or perform water rescues, you should consider at least some training in this area.

Recovery operations are less intense but good boat handling skills are essential. To be proficient at recovery operations, it does take some skill, knowledge and training. Most dragging operations are done slowly and in reverse, something most folks are not that good at. Another important aspect is being able to efficiently run search patterns on water.

How do you train for this? You need a good pond or lake to work in, something to sink to the bottom, and at least four, preferably six, marker buoys. Next, have someone sink your target object without anyone else knowing where it is. He/she will then give the recovery team an approximate location of the object and that’s when the fun begins.

The team then uses four of the buoys to mark a square grid for searching. Once the grid is established, the next task is the slow and tedious operation of dragging. This is a slow process with little glamour. It especially becomes hot and boring during the summer months.

You need to train using several search patterns, depending on how many boats are involved. I like the parallel track pattern, especially if you have additional watercraft.

Some years back we were able to recover a brick inside a pillow case using this technique. The brick and pillow case are also much smaller than a body would be. You can also train using rectangular patterns, circular and semi-circular patterns. The pattern you choose to use will depend on the number of boats, the size of the lake or pond, and other variables that need to be factored in. Once you cover the grid that was marked, you expand it with the other two buoys and begin covering the new area.

For swiftwater operations, training is much more intense and physically demanding, depending on what your role may be. Most think that the rescue swimmer is the one who has the most skills, but in reality, the boat operator has to be extremely skilled as well. When we look at swiftwater rescue, the challenges are more intense and the risk is much greater. Working in, or even around, swift moving water can take your life without the proper training and knowledge. Some of the best swimmers have lost their lives in swiftwater attempting rescues. Never underestimate the capability of moving water.

As with everything we attempt to learn to do, we have to have a starting point, and swiftwater is no different. For the ones that will be involved in the boats, and directly with the rescue operations, a good basic rafting trip is a good start. It teaches you not only boat handling in moving water, but also teaches you how to read the river as well. These river guides spend many hours on the rivers and have a lot of knowledge that can be passed on to us as rescuers. Besides that, it’s also fun, and who said that training can’t be fun sometimes. Work on your paddling skills as a group, and work together in the boats if you can. Most places will allow you to use your own personal equipment as long as it is rescue rated. We have made several rafting trips for training and we use our helmets and PFDs.

Next, you will need to work on your motorized boat handling skills. This can be done in some of the rivers, but you need to be careful, because it can play havoc on your boats if you are not familiar with the water and its rock hazards. Realistic training is preferred, but not at the expense of your equipment. Another option, one that we use, is to do your boat handling training at the coast. In the right spots, this allows you to work in currents and in rough water. This will give your operators the ability to train in waves and rough currents without the damage to your watercraft. But understand, that even at the coast, you can still damage your equipment. The biggest problem we have encountered is prop damage, which is much better than putting holes in your inflatables or your rigid hull boats.

You can never get too much boat handling practice. Your crew will be relying on your skills and knowledge to handle the boat in currents and dealing with approaching hazards. Keep them safe.

The rescue swimmers are the next folks that need lots of training. A big cue here is that your rescue swimmers need to be able to swim well. This is not an area you need to skim on. Not only do they need to be able to swim, but they need to be able to swim in moving water. Swimmers need to be swimming all year round if possible. Physical fitness can’t be compromised and must be maintained. To train in moving water requires that you swim in moving water. This means you will need to train in swiftwater environments while maintaining the safety needed to not jeopardize your folks. This is the biggest challenge you will face in training your swimmers. These folks will need to also work on their victim approaches, combat swimming, defensive swimming and offensive swimming. You need to practice basic lifeguarding skills in a more hostile environment.

Of course no swiftwater training is complete without the necessary rope training and skills. This is where some of your non-swimmers and rescuers that don’t want to be in the boat or water come into play. Rope training can be accomplished almost anywhere. The emphasis should be placed on highlines and traverse lines.


There is a lot of training that goes into a truly proficient water rescue team. A one weekend class will not give you that training, nor will doing one training a year accomplish this.

Work on your rope skills and when you are ready, it will be time to move that training to a river or stream where you can practice running your line across. You need to work on several different applications of using the lines. You need to be able to move watercraft across the line, all the way to sending a rescuer on the line to catch and retrieve a victim — fun stuff.

There is a lot of training that goes into a truly proficient water rescue team. A one weekend class will not give you that training, nor will doing one training a year accomplish this.

You need to also consider skill checking your folks on a regular basis so you will know where their skill level is. This should become a liability concern on the department’s behalf. Having a rescuer killed while performing a swiftwater rescue to only find out that training was lacking would not fare well with the powers to be. To lose a rescuer to lack of skills, training and knowledge is unacceptable.

Take the time to train and become proficient at what you do. Everyone that knows me, knows that I am all about training. You can never get too much. There are opportunities out there for water rescue training. If you are having problems, give us a call, we’ll be glad to help you out. Stay safe and train hard.

If you have any questions or comments e-mail David Pease at [email protected] and visit the team website at www.RedsTeam.com.
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