CFS Press

Advances in Swiftwater And Flood Rescue

© 9-1-1 Magazine - August 2004 issue

by Nancy J. Rigg

Swiftwater rescue.  For a long time, the term did not register on the technical rescue lexicon radar.  Unlike trench, collapse, confined space, hazardous materials, even more recent terms, like WMD – Weapons of Mass Destruction, including biological-chemical-radiological – swiftwater rescue was a term that would frequently make fire-rescue chiefs and emergency managers frown, shake their heads, and mumble, “We don’t have that problem here.”

And then it would rain.  And then it would flood.  9-1-1 centers would be inundated with flood rescue calls.  And local rescuers would find themselves scrambling to improvise a way to save the lives of victims caught in swift, swirling floodwaters.

Swiftwater + Floodwater = Technical Rescue

When Jim Segerstrom, one of the premier swiftwater rescue pioneers, was first experimenting with technical rescue techniques that could be used safely and effectively in and around fast moving water, “swiftwater rescue” emerged as a handy term that could best describe the challenge.  “At the time we didn’t give much thought to what we called it,” Segerstrom says.  “None of the equipment was specific to the purpose.  We were using scuba diving fins and wetsuits, canoeing life jackets, hockey helmets, inner tubes, trucker’s rope from the hardware store, and mountain climbing gear.  Nothing was designed specifically as ‘swiftwater rescue’ gear.  But over the past 25-years we’ve seen technology evolve, and now we have dry suits, fins, boots, gloves, helmets, life jackets and other gear all designed specific to the mission.”

Training techniques also metamorphosed from other disciplines, including whitewater rafting, scuba diving, and mountain climbing.  Understanding how swiftwater rescue evolved may help clarify why it has taken public safety officials so long to accept it, integrate it into the language of technical rescue, and embrace its potential lifesaving value, not only for victims whose lives are on the line, but also for rescue personnel who, for too many years, risked, and unfortunately often lost their own lives as they struggled to come up with ways on scene to extract people from the torrent.

Segerstrom explains that the majority of technical rescue programs, including urban search and rescue (US&R), hazardous materials, and terrorism preparedness, were built “from the top down,” with support from politicians, proactive chiefs, and emergency managers who identified risks and hazards threatening their jurisdictions and decided to tackle specific problems directly.  But swiftwater rescue was essentially a grass roots effort that grew “from the bottom up,” making its way one firefighter, one search and rescue (SAR) technician at a time into the public safety arena.  “While we were busy teaching firefighters and other rescue personnel swiftwater rescue,” Segerstrom recalls, “the upper levels of management had no clue what these new rescue teams were capable of doing.”

It was only when swiftwater rescue instructors and rescuers refined and clarified the term to include flood rescue operations that the concept began to take its proper place in the technical rescue line-up.  Floods are potential disasters.  Floods can kill people.  Floods can involve fast moving water and you need to be able to rescue people from it.  “Everybody really does have the potential of facing a problem in swift water,” Segerstrom explains, “especially when you factor in flood rescue.”  Modifying the term to feature both swiftwater and flood rescue helped launch a major technical rescue revolution.

Whatever anyone wants to call it, author and internationally renowned swiftwater rescue expert, Slim Ray, says, “Swiftwater rescue is a monument to learning things the hard way.  Every technique that we now use for saving lives, we figured out because somebody died.  This book is literally written in blood.”

Slow but Steady Progress

Capt. Ernesto Ojeda, Los Angeles City Fire Department Swiftwater Rescue Team and Training Coordinator, has been involved with the swiftwater rescue program in Los Angeles since its inception in 1992 following a series of floods that claimed more than a dozen lives, including 15-year old Adam Bischoff, whose tragic journey down the flood-swollen Los Angeles River captured national news attention.  “Swiftwater and flood rescue is now accepted completely as a technical rescue discipline,” Ojeda says proudly. 

In addition to incorporating flood awareness and swiftwater rescue operational level training into the fire academy and developing a countywide, multi-agency flood rescue program, Ojeda and other swiftwater proponents worked with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) to develop and implement the first statewide swiftwater rescue program in the nation.

According to Mike McGroarty, OES Deputy Chief of Special Operations, Fire and Rescue Branch, OES currently sponsors ten state swiftwater rescue teams that can augment local resources during major flooding emergencies.  Eight swiftwater teams are aligned with the state’s US&R Task Force program, which is routinely tapped into by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to respond to major emergencies nationwide where US&R training and equipment is needed. 

“Our US&R Task Force teams do not operate as federal swiftwater rescue resources through FEMA,” McGroarty explains.  “The feds are just beginning to focus on water-associated issues, with their new ‘Type 3’ rapid response US&R teams, but the water component is for defensive self-protection only at this time.”  McGroarty adds that FEMA, which now operates within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is “contemplating moving into a more offensive mode for flood rescue and is evaluating the training and equipment that would be needed for this.”

Another positive breakthrough involves the National Fire Protection Association’s “Standard on Operation and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents,” (NFPA 1670) and “Standard for Rescue Technician Professional Qualifications,” (NFPA 1006).  Swiftwater/flood rescue has been fully integrated into NFPA 1670 and 1006, allowing it to be recognized and standardized within the fire service.

“Technical rescue teams that are taking on swiftwater rescue specifically now understand that they need to give it the same care and respect as other technical rescue disciplines,” says Instructor Trainer Michael Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Water Rescue Program.  Kurtz also serves on PA-TF1, Pennsylvania ’s US&R Task Force team, which includes a swiftwater rescue component that can be deployed within the state, but not as a federal resource. 

“Swiftwater rescue is one of the most dangerous types of rescues to perform,” Kurtz says.  “An increasing number of agencies nationwide now understand that there are specific issues that need to be addressed for day-to-day swiftwater rescue operations, as well as flood management and rescue.”

One key issue is communications.

It Starts with 9-1-1

Michael Reitz is proud of his work as a 9-1-1 Telecommunicator with the Orange County Emergency Management Communications Division in Orange County , North Carolina , where he has worked full time for the past three years.  “Dispatchers are the first responders on the front lines,” Reitz says.  “Calls have to generate from somewhere and 9-1-1 telecommunicators are the first link in the whole long chain of preparedness, response, and mitigation, no matter what the emergency is.  If we don’t understand what we’re dealing with when we get a phone call, if we can’t envision it in our heads, we may not know what to say to someone or what resources to send.”

For incidents involving swiftwater and flood rescue, Reitz not only envisions what resources are needed, he also knows how to perform a successful rescue.  In addition to his work in communications, Reitz is a member of the Orange EMS and Rescue Squad’s swiftwater rescue team.  “For medical calls and structure fires, there are clearly defined procedures and guidelines that dispatchers follow,” Reitz says.  “Although I don’t have research to back this up, my feeling is that the majority of dispatchers may not have sufficient technical rescue awareness level training, especially swiftwater and flood rescue, to be able to effectively triage and manage flood rescue calls.”

“Rescue priority dispatch is something we definitely need to focus on,” Jim Segerstrom adds.  “When a deluge occurs, the first place to be deluged with calls is the dispatch center.  It becomes the focal point for people seeking information.  Dispatchers need good, solid pre-arrival instructions that they can give to people who are screaming at them on the phone.  Plus they need to know how to triage calls.”

When Tropical Storm Allison hammered Houston , Texas , in 2001, dispatchers fielded hundreds of calls per hour, assigning resources in a way that sometimes seemed random and not well thought out.  “For example, if call #1 was Grandma standing on her porch in rising flat water, and call #53 was a woman about to be swept away with two babies in her car, swiftwater rescue teams were assigned in the order in which the calls came in, not triaged by the immediate threat to life,” Segerstrom says.  “Call #53 was definitely life-threatening.  This call required the highest level of technical rescue training, meaning the call center needed to dispatch a fully trained and equipped swiftwater rescue team.  The call for Grandma could have waited.  She may have been upset and uncomfortable, but she was not in immediate danger.” 

Unfortunately during Allison, swiftwater rescue teams were frequently assigned to non-life threatening calls involving people needing to be evacuated out of their homes in the slow-rising flood zone, while other firefighters and police officers found themselves in over their heads, literally and figuratively. 

When three young men got stranded in their pickup truck in forceful, fast rising floodwaters, no swiftwater rescue resources were available.  Police officers, who lacked sufficient swiftwater rescue training and equipment, were assigned to the call.  “These officers tried to help,” Segerstrom says, “but what was needed was beyond their skill level.  A swiftwater rescue team was definitely needed.  This call was not well dispatched and as a result, one of the young men drowned and a police officer, who was pulled into the water, nearly died, too.”

Reitz says that in addition to being able to accurately triage calls, call takers also need to know what to advise someone whose car gets trapped in a low-water crossing or other flood related hazard.  “You may not be the person entering the water to save someone,” he cautions, “but you have got to be involved in the process, deploying appropriate resources when the unit on scene tells you that they need a swiftwater rescue unit downstream.  This may sound obvious, but you need to know the river, you need to understand where ‘downstream’ is.”

To help dispatchers better manage calls involving technical rescue operations, the Austin/Travis County EMS Agency in Texas is developing “caller triage” cards for water and land based rescue calls.  Special Operations Division Commander Casey Ping explains the difficulty of coming up with simple guidelines.  “No single bit of advice works in every situation,” he says.  “Communications personnel have little information about the environment, including how far it is to shore, is the water getting deeper and swifter, how physically fit is the caller, is the road intact or is the flood eating away at it?  This makes it hard for call takers to know what to tell people to do when there are so many unknowns.  But we need to develop better guidelines.”

Ping recalls one flood victim in Austin , Texas who was caught in a low-water crossing.  He managed to pry open the car door despite powerful, quickly rising floodwaters pressing against it.  Unfortunately, the door was on the upstream side of the flood, and as soon as he stepped into the fast moving water he was swept underneath his vehicle, pinned there, and drowned.  “We probably could have rescued this guy if he had stayed inside his vehicle or evacuated on the downstream side if he absolutely had to get out of the car,” Ping says, “but choosing to get out of his vehicle on the upstream side cost him his life.”  Having dispatchers provide general safety guidelines, especially with the prevalence of cell-phone 9-1-1 calls, could help victims make wiser choices while waiting for the arrival of a swiftwater rescue team.

Mike Reitz attended a recent North Carolina NENA Chapter meeting where Battalion Chief Tim Rogers of the Charlotte Fire Department presented a swiftwater and flood awareness class for dispatchers.  “Although I’m certified in swiftwater rescue myself,” Reitz says, “I stayed for the class.  Chief Rogers went through exactly what happens from the time someone dials 9-1-1 until swiftwater rescue teams respond, tailoring the information for telecommuicators.  He really explained what these incidents involve.  This is not still water or flat water or something under water.  This is swift water and it’s moving with a force you can’t believe, which makes it a unique hazard.”

Reitz feels that more technical rescue awareness training should be made available to communications personnel.  “Telecommunicators thirst for knowledge,” he says.  “Call takers need to know what to tell someone when a flood or swiftwater call comes in and a woman and to kids are stuck in a low-water crossing, asking us what to do.”

Future Needs

Although improvements have been made over the past 25-years since swiftwater rescue moved from its whitewater birthplace into the urban flood environment, many issues require more consistent and persistent attention, including swiftwater rescue team funding, training standards and instructor competency, flood rescue incident command and control, how flood death statistics are measured and tracked, and flood safety education.

By providing communications personnel with better swiftwater/flood rescue awareness training and integrating them more fully into flood rescue response planning, a major step will be taken to reduce the death toll in floods and incidents involving swift water.


Nancy J. Rigg is a writer, filmmaker, and public safety education consultant.  She is a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.

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