Video: Rapid water rescue options – putting training into practice

Developing a progressive approach to set foundational skills, then hone advanced capabilities


The increasing number of flood-based emergencies over the last several years has driven more and more fire departments to seek assistance in developing or enhancing their water rescue capabilities.

As I engage with these departments, it’s clear that some organizations can jump right in with both feet and have the funding, need and buy-in within the ranks. However, most departments are not prepared for the magnitude of investment and training that is required to provide comprehensive water rescue services. This is understandable, as such efforts require significant financial investment, training time, and willingness and ability within the ranks to meet the rigorous physical demands of performing water rescue. In these cases, we can identify a progressive approach with building blocks and more focused capabilities, culminating with advanced skill sets and equipment.

Building foundational training

To illustrate what that looks like, let’s start with a common scenario in a flood environment: Rapidly rising water swells overwhelm drainage infrastructure and natural riverbanks, resulting in the following:

  • Relatively fast-moving water that may carry large quantities of debris and objects; or
  • Roadway and low-level area washouts with either moving or stagnate water, leaving victims trapped in open water in vehicles or structures.

Many organizations believe they need motorized watercraft and boat operators to successfully manage these scenarios. However, completing this objective would require swiftwater and watercraft operations training, technician-level experience and a motorized watercraft. If you aren’t ready for that kind of commitment yet, let’s contemplate a different approach.

Start with swiftwater operations training, focusing on watercraft operations that are not motorized. This should be a staple in swiftwater training courses, including modules on lightweight inflatable rafts that are river appropriate and the skills required to safely operate them. Such skills include paddling techniques and shore-based systems that support the raft. This approach is far less demanding from a resource perspective. It also provides a fast approach to rescue scenarios that are simple, safe and effective.

There is a wide array of shore-supported raft-based rescue techniques. They range from simplistic rigging concepts to more advanced systems that mimic high-line constructions and require advanced rope rescue skills. For this discussion, we will focus on the simple approaches, detailing the tethering concept.

Point tethering is typically a two-point, three-point or four-point technique. This implies that you are taking shore-based ropes that are managed by rescuers who remain on the shore. You are then connecting those ropes to the corners of the raft and using manual control of the ropes to position the raft where you need it on the water. Rescuers are placed in the raft to help affect the rescue and facilitate raft movement with paddling techniques. Let’s put this concept into action.

Detailing the process

You arrive on scene of a small river that is normally walkable and travels at less than 1 knot. However, you have had three days of heavy rainfall, and the river is now surging and traveling at a speed and depth that would prevent you from safely attempting a shallow water crossing. A large tree has wedged itself as a strainer across the middle of the river, and you have a victim who is caught up on top of the strainer. Time to act fast.

When applying your water rescue sequence, you identify that the victim is too far from the bank to reach or throw to. Your next best option is to rapidly inflate the raft and deploy a point tether. You need to get personnel on both sides of the river to pull this off. If you didn’t deploy teams to both sides, you will have to accomplish this from one operating side. Paddlers are horsepower. Evaluate the current, and if the speed is significant, you have two choices to deploy personnel to the other side:

  1. Take a small but skilled paddling crew (typically two paddlers) and deploy them far upriver to establish a launch point. This will allow them to use proper ferry angles and paddling skills to paddle across the river and actually make it to the objective on the other side before they get pushed down river.
  2. If you have limited access to move significantly upriver, then go horse-power heavy to make the objective. You will still need to launch upriver, but having all of those motors and holding an upriver ferry angle with the bow set 30 to 45 degrees to the current toward the opposite bank will allow you to stroke hard, hold a rudder stroke and make the objective.

Before you deploy the crew, think through the logistics. Evaluate your staffing, read the river, and choose the right gear. For fast-acting operations, throw bags can be used for the shore control lines. This assumes you have experienced paddlers and defensive swimmers, and the current and hazards are not at a level that exceeds the team’s comfort level.

Here we go:

Step 1: Assign tasks for personnel down river. Assign down-river safety crews with throw bags, and assign a coach to the victim to maintain verbal and visual contact.

Step 2: Assign tasks for personnel on the opposite bank. A three-person team should be assigned to the “lobby” side of the bank. This team should position themselves upriver from the victim and create the top “left corner” of the operating box for the rescue sequence. This crew decides how much length of line is needed to deploy the raft from their position to the opposite side of the river as well as downriver to the victim. If this distance exceeds the length of rope in the throw bag, splice throw bags together with slimline knots, such as square with overhand safeties or double fisherman’s knot. Hard connections can be made with carabiners but can become entangled on objects in the river if not managed properly.

To prepare the raft for deployment, attach carabiners to the four corners of the raft and orient the raft so that it is facing upriver. Run the left corner line through the left rear carabiner and attach it with a knot to the carabiner on the left front of the raft. This will keep the line out of the paddling stroke path of the raft crew and help maintain the desired ferry angle to make it across the river initially.

If deploying a two-point tether, then you will need to send enough personnel over initially to offload at least two rescuers to establish the far side or “control” side of the bank.
If deploying a two-point tether, then you will need to send enough personnel over initially to offload at least two rescuers to establish the far side or “control” side of the bank.

Step 3: Assign tasks to a paddling crew. If deploying a two-point tether, then you will need to send enough personnel over initially to offload at least two rescuers to establish the far side or “control” side of the bank. These two rescuers that offload will establish and manage the “right corner” line. They can operate as horsepower paddlers, and a third and potential fourth paddler should be placed in the raft to help paddle and maintain rudder and ferry control. These two additional paddlers would remain in the raft and be the primary and secondary rescuers for the rescue sequence.

Step 4: Send the raft team. The team should read the river and pick the line they want to take to navigate to the objective on the far side or “control” side. They should launch with a proper ferry angle against the current, and the left corner shoreline team should keep the line up and out of the water while avoiding restricting the rafts movement or position on the water. As soon as the raft crew hits the control side of the river, the inside rescuers exit the raft and secure it along the bank. They can then connect the “right corner” control line to the right corner carabiner of the raft. The remaining paddlers in the raft are now the rescuers and are ready to execute the rescue. They should open the gate on the left rear carabiner and allow the “left corner” line to be a straight point of contact now to the left corner of the raft.

Step 5: Rescue. The raft crew can now position themselves facing downriver toward the stern or back of the raft. This will allow the bow of the boat to stay high and not drive down if the lines come under tension. It will also allow the rescuers to stay focused on the victim and apply paddling techniques as needed to help deploy the raft to the optimal position. One rescuer can hold their paddle above their head and use paddle positions to communicate desired direction of travel. Shore teams should allow rope to play out for the raft to travel down river. To move river right and river left, one corner team can pull tension to set a ferry angle while the other corner lets out slack. If shore-based teams have room to operate on the shore, they should attempt to walk the line as opposed to hand over hand operations. Shore-based personnel should also keep the rope on down river hips or body positions and remain conscientious about possible entanglements with the rope that might result in them being pulled into the river. Deploy the raft to the victim and apply victim PPE (PFD minimum if time permitting), and bring the victim into the raft. Then simply pull the raft to the lobby side and treat the victim. If the first attempt fails due to inability to control the raft position, lower control corners can be established with additional personnel to create a full control box or four-point tether. This will result in finite control of the raft.

Step 6: Retrieval of personnel. In order to retrieve the control side crew, you can offload the raft rescue crew and deploy an empty raft over to the control side with the lines. The control side crew can then disconnect the right control line and take the left control line and pass it through the raft right corner carabiner. This will pull the boat into the correct ferry angle when the crew is ready to be pulled over. While one control side crewmember controls the raft at the bank, the other rescuer gathers up the rope and paddles from the bank and secures the rope inside the raft. When ready, both rescuers enter the raft and call for retrieval. The lobby side then quickly pulls tension on their line and brings the raft back to the lobby side.

Final tips and cautions

Don’t underestimate the power of water. If the river-reading phase of the early assessment reveals a current speed that is beyond hand management with the number of rescuers available, then be prepared to switch gears. This situation would require a movable control point or a more advanced shore-management system/rescue technique. Further, make sure that only qualified rescuers trained in defensive swimming and swiftwater operations are deployed, and require proper PPE to be worn by all rescuers on scene. Whistles and contingency plans for communications should be established, and downriver backup teams should be requested and positioned.

This can be a truly lifesaving technique and is well within an organization’s capabilities with limited upfront investment. However, as with all technical rescue, practice is imperative, and it must be consistent and realistic.

Watch the video for reinforcement of the material and to see it in action.

Stay safe and train hard.

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