CFS Press

Thoughts on Swiftwater Equipment and Response:

An Interview with Battalion Chief Tim Rogers,
Charlotte, NC Fire Department

by Slim Ray

While researching this article (Who You Gonna Call?), I talked to Tim Rogers, a battalion chief at Charlotte Fire Department, about how his department handles swiftwater rescue and equipment.

Fire-Rescue> What would you normally send to a flood or swiftwater call?

Rogers> Our normal swiftwater/flood emergency response is one engine, one ladder, one rescue, one HAZMAT, and one battalion chief.

The Charlotte Fire Department exercises a "tiered" approach to flood and swiftwater emergencies. In other words, when people ask "who's on your swiftwater team?" the answer is "we all are." Typically the first arriving engine company that's been dispatched with a ladder and rescue company sizes up the emergency, determines the necessary strategy (mode of operation), and begins tactical operations. Since most rescues are simple, the engine company can often terminate the emergency by itself using low risk/low tech rescue techniques, even though it has the smallest compliment of specific swiftwater/flood equipment.

Should the emergency require more advanced training or specialized equipment, the role of the engine company changes to supporting the more technical operations. However, they have gathered essential information that facilitates scene safety, incident command, and makes for a smoother transition from basic to advanced operations.

During large scale flood events that involve more than one watershed, an engine and ladder is dispatched to assess the emergency and request resources as needed. This allows our rescuers to remain available in strategic locations to respond to those specific rescues and/or evacuations that require their advanced equipment and training.

FR> What sort of training do you give your people?

Rogers> Each operations member of the Charlotte Fire Department gets four hours of swiftwater awareness/safety training. Topics include: hydrology, equipment, size

Most of our operations personnel have also completed Emergency Rescue Technician, which is a North Carolina state program. This gives them another seven hours of related training. Those who have completed this training typically get assignments to ladder companies. Completion is required to be assigned to a rescue company.

We now have over 200 Swiftwater Rescue Technician I's and over 100 Swiftwater Rescue Technician II's in our department.

FR> We've seen your equipment list. Any more thoughts about equipment?

Rogers> We have plans underway to provide our firefighters assigned to engine and ladder companies with a light weight water helmet, a river knife, light sticks, and plastic radio bag. During water emergencies we remove PAR tags from bunker clothing and place them on our PFDs. During large scale and predicted events, we put lightweight footwear on company personnel prior to the response and do not don bunker clothing during after hours responses to flood or swiftwater emergencies.

We also teach firefighters to utilize improvised reaching tools such as pike poles, ladders, shovels, Halligan bars, spine boards; and how to inflate a fire hose by using CO2 extinguishers. They also learn to use makeshift throwing/floating tools such as emptied foam pails, coolers, ladder floats, and electrical cords that are stored in bags. We have deliberately limited equipment since a set number of people can only safely perform a given number of functions without support.

PFDs are color coded. An orange PFD indicates shore based rescuers, so when these PFDs show up on someone in the water other than a walking/wading evacuation we assume that this person is in peril. Orange PFDs are also not allowed in watercraft in moving water. The yellow PFDs on Rescue 10 and Rescue 3 give their wearers more "rights." Many cities and counties use helmet markings to accomplish the same thing—especially when boats are utilized. All PFDs in our system, including rescue PFD's, have company designations clearly and uniformly marked on the back in 6 inch bold letters.

FR> Any final thoughts?

Just a couple. Floods by their nature are dynamic, multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency, HAZMAT events. They are unpredictable and quickly exhaust equipment, resources, and talent due to the large geographical response requirements that most fire departments are not used to. The concept of a swiftwater team must be as large as the area they serve.

When you're buying equipment, consider this triangle:
Hazard/Phase Assessment—Training—Equipment. Each directly compliments the other. One does not precede the other nor take precedence. Note this is a hazard/phase assessment, not just a hazard assessment.

Remember that equipment must be maintained—PFDs, like ropes, do have a life cycle. They lose about 1% of their rated flotation a year.

Overall, my philosophy is to be fundamentally sound first, then have everybody trained and properly equipped, because in a flood everybody is going to be out there.

© Slim Ray 2000 All rights reserved
This article originally appeared in Fire-Rescue Magazine

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