It’s water rescue season: Are you prepared?

Equipment and training requirements for firefighters engaged in water rescue operations


The fun and sun of summer bring out the best and worst of intentions. The weekend-warrior kayakers, rafters, inner-tubers and swimmers all want to brave the rapids when they see the water up and rising.

In many parts of the country this year, we have seen uncharacteristically high rainfall, which has led to radical increases in river volume and flooding. So if you’re a responder with water capabilities, it’s important get your ducks in a row and know your capabilities and limitations. With this in mind, this article will review two key elements: water rescue equipment and water rescue training.

Water rescue equipment: Performance capabilities and limits

When the water is up, we as professional rescuers should always be on the water training and ensuring the equipment is ready to go. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)
When the water is up, we as professional rescuers should always be on the water training and ensuring the equipment is ready to go. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)

We can’t cover the whole enchilada of water rescue equipment here, but we can touch on many of the key ingredients. The key is knowing the ins and outs of how the equipment will perform in different environments as well as the thresholds for that equipment.

Water rescue PPE and PFDs: If you’re not using dry suits, know that you are opening yourself up to significant exposure hazards in flood water that is most likely contaminated. Even in non-flood-like states, rivers can contain incredibly high levels of bacteria and contaminants. Both neoprene and rubber gaskets and booties will dry rot over time and develop leaks and tears. Inspect these parts of the suits to ensure that they are in good working condition.

Personal floatation devices (PFDs) are a must and should have the highest level of buoyancy you can get. Additionally, PFDs vary in function. If you intend on entering the water to perform throw-row-go rescues, your PFD should have a breakaway safety ring integrated into the vest.

Evaluate your helmets and make sure that adhesives have not degraded, allowing foam inserts to become loose or displaced.

Water rescue support equipment: Once you’ve hammered through the PPE, evaluate your support equipment. Paddles, throw bags, reaching devices, flotation devices and rope rescue gear should all be assessed. It’s important with support gear to ensure that is readily accessible during an event and stored in such a way that is mobile and transferable. This means rope gear should not have to come out of three giant packs on the heavy rescue.

Develop small float bags that can be stored in the boats and contain the necessary hardware for movable control points and point tethers. This will make them realistic techniques, not just training techniques. If you can’t get to the gear on the water and deploy it quickly, then it is just a neat concept.

Pack light and think like a minimalist. This requires more mastery-level knowledge and skills with the equipment but will pay huge dividends by simplifying your options for rope systems and not overloading your craft.

Watercraft capabilities: Evaluate your watercraft. It is imperative that you know the load capacities, the performance characteristics and the immediate actions that can be performed on the water to keep you watercraft running optimally.

Load capacities can be found on id plates fixed to the transom of the craft. Remember that the load plates typically provide the max number of occupants and a max weight allowance, which includes the craft, motor and gear. Note: Reaching the max weight will result in a craft that does not perform ideally in rough or moving water. If you max out your craft, you should only be operating on very flat, stable water, and you should not perform radical maneuvers. This is often misunderstood and results in capsized crafts and crewmembers overboard.

Inspect your outboard motor and ensure that everything is in proper working condition. Remember the importance of placing the outboard in shallow drive when operating in moving water or static water filled with debris and obstacles.

Fresh fuel is imperative for reliable performance and additives, such as sea foam, can help stabilize fuel.

During training, ensure you practice with the right equipment. For example, if you intend on entering the water to perform throw-row-go rescues, your PFD should have a breakaway safety ring integrated into the vest. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)
During training, ensure you practice with the right equipment. For example, if you intend on entering the water to perform throw-row-go rescues, your PFD should have a breakaway safety ring integrated into the vest. (Photo/Dalan Zartman)

Formula for watercraft speed: When “getting to know your craft,” one of the most overlooked and misunderstood concepts is how fast the boat can travel – in other words, knowing how much current is too much current.

This rough formula can be used to determine your craft speed: Take the square root of the total horsepower minus 10% slip, divided by the total weight, then multiply that number by the bottom factor constant coefficient, which is approximately 250 for shallow V and flat-bottom boats.

For a 14-foot jon boat with a 25-hp outboard, this translates as the following: the square root of 23 (25 minus 10% slip) divided by 875 (the total weight in pounds) is 0.162, multiplied by 250 = 41 mph.

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For an inflatable boat with a 30-hp outboard, this translates as the following: the square root of 27 divided by 1,900 (seven people in the boat at 200 lbs. each) is 0.119, multiplied by 250 = 30 mph.

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For a normal boatload with your inflatable of three people, your top boat speed would be 39 mph.

To determine what current you could motor upriver in, you must conduct a float test and determine the current speed in feet per seconds (fps). This is similar to a velocity test, but just extract less information.

Here’s how to do it: Establish a 100-foot linear section on the bank in the area of operation and float an object. Determine how long it takes in seconds to travel the 100 feet, then divide the time by 100 to determine feet per second.

For example, if it takes 5 seconds for the object to float 100 feet, then the object is traveling at 20 fps. The conversion for fps to mph is 0.68. Multiply 20 by 0.68 and we’ve determined that the water is traveling at 13.6 mph.

If you were in your inflatable boat, you could assume that you could travel upriver at approximately 25 mph and downriver at full throttle at approximately 52 mph.

Please keep in mind that these are rough estimates but they will get you in the ballpark.

Water rescue training

When it comes to water rescue training, crews should be ramping up their training to brush off the cobwebs and master new skills and techniques to ensure that we are prepared and operating at our best when the water-rescue calls begin.

Training levels: Remember that just because you’re a firefighter doesn’t mean you’re a water rescuer. NFPA 1006: Standard for Technical Rescue Professional Qualifications sets forth the guidelines for training and competency that we should all be adhering to regarding technical rescue.

Let’s do a quick refresher of the level of training required:

  • If you get into and operate on a watercraft, then you should be trained and certified to the watercraft operations level.
  • If you touch a motor and pilot the craft, then you should be trained and certified to the technician level.
  • If you are around the water, then you should be trained to the awareness level.
  • If you are performing shore-based rescues with throwing, reaching and rope systems, then you should be training in surface and swiftwater operations.
  • If you think that you are going to intentionally enter the water as a swimmer to save someone, then you should be trained and certified as a swiftwater rescue technician.

There are additional training courses pertaining to specific water environments to train in, including flood water and surf water. Once you’ve homed in on what you are actually trained to do, start with the fundamentals and build out from there.

Training types: Most water rescues are accomplished with throw bags are reaching applications, so get the bags out, set up a trash can in the bay and initiate target practice. Get in all of your throws – underhand, side arm and overhand – and work hardest at the one where you need the most improvement. Once you’re on target with consistency at varying distances, switch to moving targets and head out to the river.

Developing shore-based rope systems requires strong rope skills and the right gear. These systems need to be deployed and operated quickly and safely. That requires a lot of coordination and practice.

Start just like the throw bags and do practice buildups in the bay. Once the team is dialed in, head out to the target water bodies where shore-based systems may be effective, and test your skills.

Training drills should always be run with a timed sequence in the mix. If you don’t have an accurate gauge of the time required to perform the objective, you never really know if it will be a viable option.

Now we are ready to move into boat ops and swim-based rescues. If these are in your capabilities list, then you can never do too much training.

When progressing through your watercraft sequences, start with immediate action on troubleshooting mechanical problems and launching. Then work into throttle control, ferrying, turns, holding position and pinning to objects, and victim rescues.

Assigning positions: It is also important to identify your crewmembers’ strengths and weaknesses among the members of your organization. Always know who needs to be in what positions when the call comes in. Don’t put your strongest swimmer on the tiller of the watercraft when you have another competent pilot.

Water rescue prep complete – now go train!

When the water is up, we as professional rescuers should always be on the water training and ensuring the equipment is ready to go. The best teacher is experience – doing it the right way with the right equipment. Provide solid instruction in challenging environments, so the knowledge, skills and abilities will skyrocket.

That’s the compressed version of water season prep. I hope it fires you up to get out there and passionately pursue excellence.

Stay safe and train hard!

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