THE Weapon of Mass Destruction:

The Growing Impact of Moving Water and Floods on

the International Fire Service.


Reprinted from Fire International Magazine, Great Britain, June, 2001


by Jim Segerstrom

Special Rescue Services, a member company: World Rescue Group


Bangladesh, Chile, Venezuela, Portugal, Hungary, Ukraine, Mozambique, United Kingdom, Australia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Africa, United States, France, Germany, Holland, Canada

The list is actually a lot longer–the countries, the states, the provinces that have suffered significant problems from rising rivers, swiftwater, and catastrophic flooding


When I started the Swiftwater Rescue Technician program in 1979 at Rescue 3, the major new interest in rescue circles was “river rescue.” Indeed, a number of public safety personnel had died in those years–making the same mistakes repeatedly, not knowing what they didn’t know. Our delivery emphasized that a lot of moving water emergencies occur outside of rivers–in canals, irrigation ditches, flood control channels, storm drains, sewers, flooded city streets, desert arroyos–anywhere that water could get moving down a gradient. We adopted the word “swiftwater” to separate the concept from other existing programs.


In the early years most of our students were law enforcement rescue personnel, park rangers, fisheries personnel and whitewater guides. The fire service was not yet the mission of the fire service it has become today.


The Swiftwater Rescue Technician philosophy–certified since 1984 by the International Rescue Instructors Association in the US– was correct for the time–what can a handful of rescuers, sometimes acting alone, safely do to rescue a finite number of victims in a defined area? The SRT class has now been delivered to nearly 100,000 people in 11 countries.  Today nearly 70% of those taking and teaching the program, and other similar programs, are firefighters.


Indeed the fire service, particularly in the United States, has jumped enthusiastically into the mission of delivering search and rescue services–rope, confined space, earthquake and USAR. . . and water rescue.


However, even if we are generous in our estimates, the number of firefighters trained to a consensus standard for basic water rescue, much less the more hazardous swiftwater environment, is a “spit in the ocean,” compared to the growing problem. 


As the result, firefighters and rescuers world-wide continue to go in harm’s way at an increasing number of moving water and flood calls–attempting to maintain the traditions of personal sacrifice, “improvise, adapt, and overcome;” letting emotion cloud judgment–and paying the ultimate price.


In recent months rescuers have been swept away to their deaths in a number of countries. In many other situations, untrained rescuers have not only nearly died themselves, but failed to rescue those they were attempting to assist.  Informal estimates in the US, based on the number of firefighter deaths in fires per thousand working fire calls, compared to the number of firefighter deaths per thousand water calls, would seem to indicate that the chances of an American firefighter drowning on duty are 400% higher than those of dying in a working fire! Those deaths–most recently in Colorado, Nagoya, Japan, and Manchester, UK–can most readily be attributed to lack of knowledge, lack of equipment, and emotion and urgency.


Meanwhile, the global problem increases in severity. The daunting challenges have been emphasized to me recently as I have visited with government officials in China and Japan–densely populated countries which have suffered recent large flood events.


There is bad news, worse news, and very little good news.


First the bad news:


Global warming is a fact. Poor countries are going to bear the brunt, as the cycle of droughts and floods increase in severity. Glaciers on the equator are disappearing. The ice cap on Kilamenjaro in Africa, millions of years old, will disappear by 2016. The world will warm approximately 10 degrees C in the next 100 years. The oceans will rise nearly a meter. There will be more “freak” weather events. There will be massive population displacements and potentially enormous loss of life. Floods are already the world’s number one weather-related killer, and cause more property loss than all other weather-related events combined. Ninety-four million people a year are now affected–from minor inconvenience to death–by floods. Property loss from flooding has rise nearly $40 billion each year. The insurance industry is able to replace very little of this loss. The World Bank is now spending over $28 billion each year on disaster packages.


The title of this article, from my friend, US swiftwater expert Slim Ray, encapsulates the problem most aptly. Today public safety agencies are devoting tremendous amounts of time and money preparing for earthquakes and terrorist events–which, combined, kill nearly 21,000 people each year. Meanwhile, each year, 300,000 a year die in monsoons, hurricanes, and floods. 


Slim is correct, water is the ultimate “weapon of mass destruction.”


Now, the worse problems:


1. Contrary to the opinion of many public safety officials that I have met in my 27 year career, in every country and every location: There is nothing unique, special, or different about floods in your jurisdiction. Water moving down a gradient behaves in a predictable fashion, and responding to such emergencies needs to be done in a fashion comparable to what reasonable, prudent, properly trained and equipped responders are doing elsewhere. These events no longer occur periodically. There is no such thing as a “100 year flood.” This problem is not going away. It is getting worse.


2. Twenty-six percent of US firefighters–paid and volunteer combined–are either weak or non-swimmers! Their supervisors in most cases don’t know who those personnel are because swimming has traditionally not been a hiring aptitude or required job skill.


How many of your agency personnel don’t know how to swim?


3. In the US there is only one lifejacket/buoyancy aid in service for every 15 emergency personnel. Many of these are old. Even if they have not been used, such equipment loses flotation with age. In recent classes I’ve demonstrated by having personnel jump into a pool wearing only a bathing suit and their personal flotation devices. In many instances the PFD will not support the wearer’s mouth and nose above the surface in flat water!


How many life jackets does your department have? Are you employee’s trained in how to wear them properly. Have they been tested for flotation recently? What are the occupational safety legal requirements in your jurisdiction for employees exposed to the chance of drowning? Does your department comply fully with those requirements?


3. Since 1989 nearly 40 US public safety personnel have drowned on duty. Traditional water rescue programs are no longer adequate to deal with the scope and intensity of the problems. Even the title Swiftwater Rescue no longer is no longer an adequate way to describe the discipline.


Now the problem is Swiftwater/Flood Rescue.


Yet, water rescue in many areas remains the “red-headed stepchild” of public safety priorities.


4. The problems in these events are virtually unknown to most emergency supervisors.

The expression “flood disaster management” is, in most places, a contradiction in terms.

Swiftwater and flood events occur in four phases–pre-event; the “rescue” phase; the “evacuation, search, and safety” phase, and the recovery phase. Each has its own long list of concerns. Those concerns should be the available to incident commanders through the use of a Swiftwater/Flood Technical Specialist–to provide safety information and guidance in the planning for such responses.



A Swiftwater/Flood Technical Specialist is intimately acquainted with all aspects of basic to advanced moving water rescue, including shore-based concerns, boat operations, rope rescue applications, helicopter utilization, communications, logistics problems, searching flood habitats, animal rescue in floods, citizen awareness and evacuation procedures, hazardous materials, contaminated conditions, night and inclement weather operations, and a host of other concerns.


There are a handful of such individuals in the US, less in most other locations. And, even in the US, most emergency managers have no idea who they are or how to utilize them.


5.  “Disaster Management” is, by definition, reactive in nature. Money, serious money, needs to be spent on the pro-active “pre-flood” preparation in most locations.  Educate the public on the dangers. Legislate so that those who fail to obey lawful orders to evacuate, or drive around barricades and become stranded in low water crossings, can be punished for public endangerment. Mitigate by condemning property in low-lying areas that continually flood, relocating businesses and residences to flood resistant areas. Plan the community response. Identify the resources available before the event, by type, training, and equipment. Make basic operational-level moving water equipment and skills available to as many responders as possible. Indeed, like an earthquake, it won’t be the high-tech USAR team that makes most of the rescues; but the locals–trained or untrained–who are on-scene as the flooding becomes life threatening.


Many locations have only started on this work. Others have not started. There is no budget for it. Budgets are already tight, and in many places shrinking.


Now, the good news:


1. Credible, consensus-standard, awareness-level training is readily available and inexpensive. It should be provided to ALL personnel.


2.      Operations-level training and equipment is also readily available. NFPA 1670 pretty well defines the operational needs for public safety agencies. Such training can generally be accomplished in as little as 16 hours, with qualified instruction.


3. Basic, common practice, equipment is also relatively inexpensive. All personnel operating in the “hot zone,” which most swiftwater educators identify as within 15 feet or 4 meters of the edge of the moving water, should be wearing an approved buoyancy aid or personal flotation devices. 


4. Systems exist that can be used as models for flood preparation. After a 3 year stint as a member of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Swiftwater/Flood Rescue Committee, under the chair of Captain Jay Bowdler of the Sacramento Fire Department, our Operational Systems Description for swiftwater/flood response was recently released. It is now being used as a response model in several states, and is readily available to those interested.




The problems are immense and growing: flash floods; seasonal floods; levee failures; surface debris; night rescues in rivers; vehicle rescues in floods; evacuations in contaminated conditions; mud flows; land slides; deteriorated road surfaces; open manholes; storm drains; fast-moving flood channels; multiple victims; poor communications; poorly trained boat crews; incompatible training; hazardous materials; disabled persons; inadequately trained helicopter crews; no flood maps; poor crowd control; lack of unified command; weirs and dams; inadequately marked and patrolled flooded roadways; lack of search skills; late evacuation; even structure fires!


All will become more common-place. And the time to prepare is now.







1. Never let emotion and urgency drive your decision. “Common sense” has no place at a swiftwater/flood rescue. If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. It is better to be tried by twelve than carried by six. At least you will be breathing while you explain what happened at the inquiry.


2. Rescuers start each new discipline with a pocket full of luck and the other pocket empty of experience. The trick is to fill the second before the first is empty. Take the benefit of others experience and seek competent, standard-of-care, professional rescue training.


3. Personnel within 15 feet of the edge of moving water should be wearing a lifejacket.


4. I promise not to wear my swiftwater wetsuit to your house fire, if you promise not to wear your structural firefighting clothing and helmet to my swiftwater rescue. My rubber suit will melt, and yours will sink.


5. Moving water is deceptive. It is more powerful than you realize, and relentless. If it is moving 12 mph or 20 kph it will push you into that fence downstream with a total force of over 400 lbs, or 220 kg.


6. Water moving half that speed and 1.5 feet or 1/2 m. deep will move a sedan sideways on asphalt. If a vehicle floats away before the drivers escape, the chances of survival are minimal. Fire engines are not acceptable swiftwater rescue vehicles either. I’ve got lots of videos of immersed fire apparatus if you’d like to see some.


7. Don’t tie a rope to a rescuer and attempt to wade out to help someone. Rescuers die each year that way–stuffed under cards or entrapped in debris.


8. Make sure you employ upstream spotters–to spot debris; and downstream protection–in case rescuers and victims are washed away, before initiating a moving water rescue.


9. Try to do an appropriate size-up and hazard assessment. Make sure you have enough trained personnel on-site. Use your incident command system, with a designated “safety,” and good communications, before choosing the plan. Choose the lowest risk options first.


10. Don’t put any personnel in a rescue boat who don’t feel they can get out of the middle of the situation without the boat. Boat skills and swimming skills don’t necessarily go hand in hand.


11. Don’t request a helicopter that you have never worked with and can’t communicate with when it arrives.


12. On an swiftwater/flood incident the Incident Commander can start the plan; but anybody can stop it! Everybody is “safety,” and should recognize their own personal limitations.


13. After the “rescue” phase, comes the “search and evacuation” phase. Utilize an Incident Action Plan. Make sure that you are prepared for hazardous materials, contaminated flood water; and the potential for fire. Make sure that power is off in the search area. Make work periods brief, and make sure that rest, and food are supplied to personnel, along with gross decontamination for those being relieved.


Fatigue, cold, and bodies immersed in excrement and fuel oil for long periods: a formula for loss of efficiency, illness and injury.


Jim Segerstrom is the managing partner of Special Rescue Services Group of Sonora, California, and an executive vice president for World Rescue Group ,with offices and representatives in California, Taiwan, Japan, Australia and Canada. He designed and still teaches the Swiftwater/Flood Rescue Awareness, Operations, Technician and Instructor programs, as well as rope and helicopter rescue world-wide, and acts as a consultant to industry and government. The original founder of Rescue 3, he has responded to past floods as a Technical Specialist to the California Office of Emergency Services. A California State Fire Marshal’s instructor, a founding member of the International Rescue Instructors Association, a member of the Technical Advisory Board for the International Emergency Technical Rescue Institute, and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Advanced Rescue Technology magazine, he is a frequent speaker at international conferences, and a 25 year veteran of the Tuolumne County, California, Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team. He can be reached at [email protected].