Water Rescue — High Risk, Low-Frequency Technical Incidents

By David Greene

The modern-day fire service should take a lesson from the US Navy Seals. Seals are capable of being deployed anywhere in the world in 24 hours. This includes 71 percent of the earth’s surface covered in water, a Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) specialty (compared to other Special Forces). Due to this, SEALS spend considerable time training on operating in or deploying from the water. Many of our fire departments are responsible for water rescue. Even if you do not have a water rescue team, rapids, rivers, the Atlantic Ocean, or other bodies of water for which you are responsible, when something happens in the water in your jurisdiction, someone dials 9-1-1. Your department is instantly put into the game. Water rescue is a complex, high-risk, low-frequency incident that can require resources from inflatable boats and swift water rescue Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to rope rescue equipment and ladder trucks.  

Identifying the risk in your area is the first step. Perhaps you have white water rapids in your jurisdiction, or maybe you are responsible for operating in the ocean. In any case, identifying resources within your jurisdiction or in a neighboring jurisdiction is essential to be prepared to deploy in the event of an emergency on the bodies of water in your area. That is perhaps the first challenge to overcome. Many bodies of water, like rivers, separate cities, towns, or counties. When this is the case, there is no clear delineation as to which government is responsible for that body of water (which is to say that there is no dotted yellow line separating the northbound lane of the river and the southbound lane of the river). Which Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) answers the 9-1-1 call often determines which jurisdiction’s fire department or rescue service will respond first. If multiple calls are received, the chances of more than one fire department or rescue service responding increases. Unified Command is essential.  Coordination with the first arriving units is very important to prevent duplication of effort (i.e., searching the same piece of river, etc.). The second and third groups of resources should support the first arriving, which requires interoperable communications. Radio communications can be difficult. Crews below the saltwater line may find themselves in four feet of water with excellent radio and mobile phone signal at high tide only to find themselves sitting on the riverbed in zero feet of water with no radio or mobile phone signal at low tide.

As in all incidents, we prefer to have a starting point. In water rescues, the starting point is usually difficult to pinpoint. The incidents usually start with someone disappearing below the surface of the water, followed by a frantic search, followed by a more deliberate search, followed sometimes by the setting of the sun, followed by the eventual call to 9-1-1. In the time that has passed, sometimes hours, the witnesses often move around and inevitably gather to meet the responders when they arrive. This creates difficulty in identifying the location from which the victim is submerged. Even in a decent current, the victim is often found near where they disappear. This makes it essential that your 9-1-1 call taker have someone stay at the location where the victim was last seen and mark the location using a visual reference from where they are standing. This is a tremendous help to the responders looking for that starting point.

Next, we need to consider the weather. While we expect the weather to be clear, otherwise we wouldn’t have people outside to rescue us, this is not always the case; of course, weather can change quickly. Have you ever heard that the odds of getting struck by lightning is one in a million? According to the National Weather Service, the odds of lighting being struck in a given year is 1 in 1,222,000 (a little higher than one in a million). However, the National Weather Service suggests that the odds of a boat being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 per 1,000. The simple math here is that you are much more likely to be hit by lightning in a boat than you are if you are not in a boat. Since we use boats to operate during water rescue operations, the weather is something we must constantly be monitoring. Our partners at the local National Weather Service office can provide us a spot forecast for a particular area that can alert us to any weather hazards such as high winds (that can produce large waves in open water), rain (which can obscure visibility), and storms (which could bring lightning to our area of operations). As I wrote, we expect the weather to be clear; otherwise, people wouldn’t be out in it. On July 7, 2021, several Lowcountry South Carolina counties and the United States Coast Guard participated in a water rescue of multiple individuals who were stranded on an island when their boat became adrift after being beached on an unoccupied island. If you go and look up the weather for the evening of July 7, 2021, you will likely find a lot of references to Elsa. Sadly, these references are not about the character from the Disney movie Frozen, but the references are to Tropical Storm Elsa. Tropical Storm Elsa passed through the Lowcountry of South Carolina on the evening of July 7 and the morning of July 8, causing significant rainfall, gusty winds, and a few short-lived tornadoes. While we assume and expect people won’t be out in bad weather occasionally, we will be faced with people who take their boats out in a lightning storm…or hurricane. It is difficult for us to respond to a call and not intervene. However, the protection of our troops should prevail when faced with dangerous operating conditions. That applies to all calls and not just water rescues. My department is not in the habit of diving at night. Many wonders why that is as the blackwater rivers that run through our jurisdiction obscure visibility below just a few feet. Even in four feet of water at high noon, you can descend to the river bottom and not be able to see your hand in front of your face. So, why not dive at night if you cannot see anything, day or night? Again, we must protect the divers. If a log hits them, they become entangled on a submerged tree or get a cramp, and it will be much harder to assist them at night than during the day. We must always consider the weather and time of day.

Finally, we should discuss wildlife. Part of the appeal of visiting bodies of water is to see the various wildlife in their natural habitat. However, several animals can harm us, and we must remember that we are in their habitat. Alligators, snakes, and sharks are just a few animals that can cause our personnel injuries when operating at water rescue. We are at the top of the food chain until we enter the water below the saltwater line. My department once responded to drowning and located an unoccupied boat under a set of trees. A fishing rod in the boat had a line attached to one of the trees. One firefighter began to pull on the fishing line only to hear another firefighter yell, “STOP!” The end of the fishing line was stuck in a tree just below a hornet’s nest that was so big that you couldn’t get your arms around it. We theorized that the fisherman had taken his boat under the trees to untangle his line and, upon stirring up the hornet’s nest, entered the water and tragically drowned thereafter. There is a multitude of wildlife we must be aware of when operating in water rescue incidents.

There is a single incident that I can remember that brings all these considerations together. Someone once said, “Learn from others’ mistakes. You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Along those lines, when it comes to operational experience, you can either read about it or be it. Unfortunately, I was it, so take a minute to read about it. While working as the Battalion Chief, we received a call for a submerged vehicle on the river just down from a boat landing. This is not uncommon when a vehicle is stolen, and the thieves are done with it.  Unfortunately, the vehicles do not always sink immediately and may travel some distance from the boat landing before submerging.  While the tow company will eventually try to remove the vehicle, we certainly do not want a body (or bodies) to float out of the window during this process, as we would then have a body recovery to perform. The solution is to search the vehicle prior to removal, which was our intended plan. It was very late in the day, and I had some concerns regarding the remaining daylight while en route. On arrival, I quickly flipped a coin with another firefighter to see who would dive and who would be the backup diver. I lost. While assembling my tank, buoyancy control, and other gear, someone asked me if I wanted a wetsuit. I quickly looked at the setting sun and declined, thinking I could save time without it. I entered the water on a tether from the landing, floated down to the vehicle, and found the roof only a few inches under the water. 

The vehicle had become lodged in several tree branches and sunk near the bank. I descended and began to search the vehicle for any victims. Visibility was very limited, and the current made movement around the vehicle difficult. Between the jagged parts of the car and the various tree limbs, I began to feel scrapes on my arms and back as I searched. Upon completing the search, finding no occupants, and getting the vehicle’s tag number to the Deputy Sheriff on the scene (the vehicle was stolen), I began to look for egress from the river. It was now dark. I was not interested in swimming upriver back to the landing any more than my tenders were interested in pulling me back upriver to the landing. I heard one of my tenders say, “here’s a spot that we’ll just pull you up onto the bank.” As he started pulling me further down the river, I heard him step onto the bank they were pulling me towards, use some profanity, and then say, “There’s a water moccasin; there’s another one.” I’m not a snake fan and was less excited that my tenders were trying to pull me on top of two poisonous ones. That plan was abandoned, and they pulled me up the side of a steep bank after removing the bulk of my gear from the water on the vehicle’s roof. Once we got back to the station to clean up, I found that I had several large lacerations, but thankfully, no snake bites.  

So, a delayed notification and declining weather/daylight conditions drove me to elect to dive without wearing the proper PPE (even a neoprene wetsuit would have prevented most of the lacerations I sustained). While there were no victims, the wrecker was not on scene when I left the water, meaning someone else had to get back in the water to hook up the vehicle and pull it out. That probably happened the following day, which may have been a better time for us to dive into the vehicle. It would have allowed me to use sufficient PPE, see and avoid the limbs in the water, and not have my dive tenders stepping on poisonous snakes in the dark. To compensate for the time compression, I made some mistakes in judgment, and thankfully, no one needed stitches or CroFab (Antivenom) before the call was over. We were lucky, and as the late great Chief Alan V. Brunacini said, “Good luck can make you dumb because it makes you think you’re smart.” Unfortunately, luck is a terrible tactic and was the primary one I used during the call above.  

Instead of luck, consider the above factors when handling a water rescue call. Ensure that your notifications have minimal delays. If you arrive first, deploy. If you arrive after, support the first arriving folks. Coordinate the resources to prevent duplication of effort and ensure an adequate communications platform (and it is being utilized). Keep your eye on the weather conditions and plan for day versus night operations. Finally, be aware of the wildlife in the area and take precautions or use lookouts to protect our personnel. Water rescues remain complex, high-risk incidents. Ensure that the resources to respond to them, training, and personnel are getting the attention they deserve.

Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 31 years of experience in the fire service and is currently the deputy chief with Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue. He holds a PhD in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University and an MBA degree from the University of South Carolina. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence, holds Member Grade in the Institution of Fire Engineers, is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy and is a Nationally Registered Paramedic. He can be reached at dagreene@lowcountry.com.

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