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5 steps to water rope rescues

Being skilled at throwing a rope bag is tools for a water rescuer to possess; here's a look at how to improve rope throws


It never fails. The victim is flying down river, we have rescuers spaced out on the shore, everyone is equipped with throw bags, and the first rescuer makes his throw; the bag goes completely off course and into the trees.

Throw bags are probably the most versatile and essential rescue device we have for swift water rescue. They are inexpensive, can be deployed from anywhere in the environment including watercraft, and they always give us one of the safest alternatives to effect a rescue.

There are three basic throwing positions: overhand, side arm and underhand.

An overhand throw mimics throwing a football or baseball. Hold the end of the rope in your off hand and throw the bag with your dominant throwing arm with an overhand motion. This position is ideal for short, precise throws.

You will not achieve great distances with the overhand but it is very accurate. It also enables throwers to be in the water, on the bank surrounded by ground covering and branches and on the watercraft.

Sling and pitch
The sidearm throw mimics throwing a disc. Hold the end of the rope in your off hand and throw the bag with your dominant throwing arm with a sidearm motion. This will achieve greater distances than the overhand and can also be delivered from difficult body positions.

It does, however, require more immediate room around the rescuer to make the throw and it is far less accurate. Sidearm throwing takes a great deal of practice and the arc of the bag leaving the rescuer becomes more lateral than vertical. This decreases the reliability of the rope landing across the victim.

An underhand throw mimics throwing a horseshoe. Hold the end of the rope in your off hand and throw the bag with your dominant throwing arm with an underhand motion. This throw requires the most room immediately around the rescuer but will achieve maximal distance and accuracy.

The key to success with these throwing techniques is practice, practice and more practice. Throwing can be routinely performed about anywhere, like the apparatus bay. You don't have to deploy the boats and don your dry suits to get in consistent throw bag practice.

Before applying these throwing techniques, review these five general principles of throw-bag rescues.

1. Be redundant
Always get two throw bags if you can. Having a backup bag will allow rescuers to redeploy a bag quickly and have an alternative bag if the primary washes downriver or gets entangled.

2. Prep the bags
When moving down the bank and into position, keep the drawstring on the bag cinched. This prevents the rope from getting snared or spilling out.

Once into position, loosen the drawstring completely. Pull the end of the rope out and grasp it firmly in the non-throwing hand. This end of the rope should be pre-rigged with a figure eight on a bite or other appropriate knot with a bite.

The bite should be large enough to fit your fingers into comfortably. Do not pass your hand through the bite and allow the bite to seat on your wrist. This action could result in the rescuer being pulled into the river.

Good throw bags will have an adjustable grab handle on the top of the bag. Fully adjust this handle out so that the rope will play freely out of the bag when thrown.

3. Coach the victim
As the victim approaches from upriver, communicate loud, early and clear. The universal command is to yell "rope" right before throwing the bag to the victim.

The first throw attempt should be made when the victim is upriver from the rescuer's position. This may allow the rescuer time to make a second attempt if the first throw misses the target. The target should be on line with the victim and beyond the victim.

Don't try to lead the victim. Throw bags will travel faster in the water than the victims, so you are better off being slightly behind the victim than in front of them. This target zone should result in the bag going over the victim and the rope landing across them or slightly up river from them.

Once the victim has the line, coach them to put the line over their inside shoulder — this is best communicated by using left or right commands. The inside shoulder technique creates a natural ferry angle for the victim and dramatically assists in bringing them to the bank.

Often, when victims don't do this and lock in the rope on the shoulder that is closest to the rescuer, they get pulled over into the prone position where take a face full of water and stay in an in-line body position in the water holding on for dear life.

4. Be prepared to tend
As soon as the throw bag leaves the rescuer's hand, the rescuer should pass the rope behind their lower back or rear end to body belay. The bite end of the rope should be in the up river hand of the rescuer and the rope going to the victim should be coming off the rescuer's down river hip.

It is also important to have other techniques depending on the environment. Strong currents may require the rescuer to sit down or even have a partner who sits down behind them to help anchor the line. When working in flood like conditions, the body belay may not be an option because rescuers may be throwing in chest deep water.

We often end up in water this deep bracing against trees to get to the main body of water in flood states. When faced with this challenge, use the trees as friction anchors instead of your body. Throw from a position on the upriver side of the tree. As soon as the victim receives the rope, bring the rope across the tree toward the bank and use the friction on the tree to control the rope.

5. Watch the rope, communicate downriver
If the entire rope is floating downriver, it must be communicated to downriver personnel. This is essential if watercrafts are positioned downriver.

Rope in the water and props do not mix and your watercraft will end up out of commission.

You can never have enough throwers. Position support personnel in optimal throw positions as close as possible to the victim as well as downriver. And always be prepared to deal with rescuers becoming victims. 

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