THE Weapon of Mass Destruction:
The Growing Impact of Moving Water and Floods on
the International Fire Service.
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,
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
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
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
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:
consensus-standard, awareness-level training is readily available and
inexpensive. It should be provided to ALL personnel.
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
All will become more
common-place. And the time to prepare is now.
SEGERSTROM’S AXIOMS FOR
THOSE GOING ON A FLOOD RESCUE IN A FEW HOURS, AND OTHER TIPS:
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
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
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
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].