Water Rescue: It’s Here to Stay

By David Pease

Historically, NC is number 3 for being hit by the most storms and hurricanes. Pre-1900 there were 139 recorded storms. From 1900 to current there has been 274 storms. Now of the 10 most deadly storms, 2 were in the 1700’s, 4 in the 1800’s, 2 in the 1900’s, and 2 in the 2000’s. Of the most current ones, Floyd had the most deaths, and was followed by Florence and Matthew. It is obvious that we have had plenty of storms in the past and will have plenty more in the future. Let’s look at how our water rescue program has evolved over the years, to one, if not the best in the country.

In the beginning there was fire departments, and rescue squads. The fire departments provided fire service and assisted in vehicle crashes. Rescue Squads provided EMS and rescue services. Most of the rescue squads had boats that were designed for lake recovery operations and not moving flood waters. The Rescue Squad I was part of, was in that very situation. We were equipped for dragging and recovery operations but not for fast moving water. When storms did hit, the departments did what they could with what they had. Back then there were no TR Water Rescue classes, you were pretty much on your own. Luckily over the years things began to change and the need became more apparent.   

Our first deployment with the REDS Team was for hurricane Fran in 1996. Our next deployment was hurricane Floyd in 1999. We were better prepared equipment and training wise, but still not totally ready for what hit us. We were one of the only water rescue teams in the state outside of Charlotte. After hurricane Hugo came through Charlotte, the Fire department saw a need to increase their water capabilities. We deployed 3 times for Floyd, and afterwards realized we needed more equipment and training. We added another Zodiak type inflatable, giving us two for swiftwater rescue. We also added swiftwater PFD’s, more throw ropes, and more time training. After 9/11 in 2001, there was a lot of federal FEMA money being thrown out there to fund USAR Teams. North Carolina got their share and put together 9 USAR Teams. Their primary mission was structural collapse. We were part of one of those Task Force Teams, but it did not include a water rescue component. In 2004 we deployed to 4 hurricanes in two months. The need for more teams was becoming apparent.

With 9 USAR teams sanctioned by the state, they realized this was a good resource that could be added to the current swiftwater teams. It wasn’t long before 9 more teams were added to the state system. With some changes in leadership and better money options more teams were taken in the system. There are now more than 30 Type I, II, & III teams in the NC water response system. North Carolina Emergency Management soon expanded and hired more folks to handle the emergency responses. These folks were motivated to build the best system in the country. Teams had to meet certain equipment and personnel requirements as set forth by FEMA typing, as well as more structured training. A better notification system was put in place and a better tracking system for teams. I believe it’s the best system in the country, but I am a little biased.

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 is, “are my rescuers properly trained to use our equipment”. Having poorly trained folks with the best equipment would be like having a 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 may be able prepare our department for water rescue. Make sure you research the equipment you need for what you want to do. There is a lot of good equipment out there that can get the job done and keep you safe. Ask other departments that do water rescue and recovery and get their thoughts. Take time to look at the boats, motors, PFD’s, ropes, etc that you will need that work the best for your department.

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, it does put you at the scene and involved, even if indirectly. You may be asked to assist with recovery 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 loading and unloading watercraft and helping to handle 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 recovery operations need to be done slowly and concise, something most folks are not that good at. Another important aspect is being able to efficiently run search patterns on water. So how do you train for this? Well, all you need is 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 then 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 running sonar, water HRD dog or dragging. This is a slow process with little glamour. It especially becomes hot and boring during the summer months. You may want to consider PFDs that are low profile and inflate with CO2. The larger ones tend to be hot during the summer months.

For swiftwater and flood water 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, the boat operator has to be extremely skilled, if not more so than a swimmer.  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 learning to do, we need a starting point, and swiftwater in 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 if it is rescue rated. We have made several rafting trips for training, and we have been able to use our helmets and PFD’s at most, but not all of them.

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 the 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. Now do understand that even at the coast, you can still damage your equipment. 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 skimp 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 on a regular basis if possible. Physical fitness can’t be compromised and must be maintained. To train in moving water will require 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 to come into play. Rope training can be accomplished almost anywhere. The emphasis should be placed on highlines and traverse lines. Work on your rope skills and when you are ready, it will be time to move that training to a river or stream 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.

David Pease, Chief
The Reds Team

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