3 keys to a good shore water rescue

Shore-based water rescues are tricky business, understanding and practicing these three principals will increase the odds of success

Many of us saw a recent swift-water event in which a rescuer was traveling rapidly down river with shore-based rescuers making throw bag attempts. The great thing about this video was the multiple pairs of rescuers all in good rescue positions with throw bags and reaching devices.

L.A. had a heroic day in which they rescued two in an extremely high-risk environment. The rescuer that is washed out swims comfortably and competently, and the shore-based rescuer who retrieves him performs great line management.   

This is a great learning opportunity regarding the importance of preparedness and proficiency. Water rescues can be very unforgiving and it takes one slip up to equate to a disastrous outcome. Although this was an outstanding rescue sequence, there are always things that happen on every rescue that can be used as vital reminders and lessons learned. 

One thing to focus on from this video is the variable in preparedness. The difference in actions taken by the shore-based firefighters in turnout gear and the water rescue technicians is stark. 

This is an ominous and consistent challenge for every fire department I have worked with. Specialized rescues require specialized personnel, but they also require support personnel who are proficient in specialized fundamentals. There are three key fundamentals elements for all firefighters, not just the rescue technicians.

1. PPE requirements
Establish PPE requirements for shore-based rescuers. Always try to avoid wearing things to the water's edge that are non buoyant — like turnout gear. It is challenging enough to swim and stay afloat in swift water without adding heavy clothing or PPE that absorbs large amounts of water weight. 

A good rule of thumb is to require PFD that is commensurate with body weight. This can be a flotation coat, a classified vest or a full survival suit. This decision will be driven by accessibility, hazard level and type, and available time. 

As crews are dispatched to downriver locations, they may only have time to access or don what is readily available. Stowing a versatile cache of water PPE on the rigs is ideal but may be limited by space and cost. 

The condition of the moving water should also contribute to the PPE decision. If the current speed and/or water temperature are determined to be high-level hazards, then a more aggressive PPE ensemble should be used if time allows.

2. Swim training
Train all personnel in defensive swimming techniques. If a would-be rescuer gets washed out in fast-moving water, there's a legitimate probability of being pushed downriver for an extended period of time. Swift water can also push personnel into strainers and other lethal water hazards. 

The vast majority of shore-based rescuers will not be certified rescue swimmers, and they don't need to be. But, they do need to be capable of navigating in swift water in the safest possible manner.

The most important pieces of defensive swim techniques involve keeping your toes up and downriver and understanding ferry angles. The foot or toe position is imperative to prevent foot entrapments and keep the swimmer's eyes downriver so that hazards, obstacles and objectives can be seen and either avoided or pursued. 

The ferry-angle understanding allows swimmers to use the current to their advantage. While moving downriver in the defensive swimming position, a backstroke with the left arm will allow the current to push the swimmer to his right and vice versa. 

A slightly more advanced technique is to barrel roll onto your stomach and aggressive forward swim as needed. This is used to overcome strainers, get into eddies or make it to objectives rapidly.

Swimming in swift water is exhausting and cold water has significant physiological and psychological impacts. If you find yourself in the water, stay calm, swim smart, and swim hard when you have to.

3. Practice and more practice
Practice throwing and then practice again. Throwing a throw bag is not as easy as we like to think — especially when the target is rocketing down river and the adrenaline is pumping. 

There are three basic throwing positions: overhand, sidearm, and underhand. Each has different applications and results.

Overhand is typically used for short, accurate throws or when the rescuer is throwing from an unstable platform such as a boat or while waist deep in water. This throw will not gain the distance that underhand or sidearm throws will. 

Sidearm throws can also be used from unstable or waist deep platforms for greater distance than an overhand throw. However, they are less accurate because the rescuer is throwing on a lateral and vertical arc.

Underhand throws are the most effective for accurate, long distance throws from a stable platform. With each of these throwing techniques, muscle memory must be built by repeatedly practicing good body mechanics.

Precede every throw with throwing motions. Two to three throwing motions while you are visualizing the target coming at you should help the actual throw hit its target.

Release points will also affect the throw, and rescuers should practice using different ones. If you are throwing from a tree-lined bank with overhead foliage, the throw may have to be hard and low. A low-lying obstacle such as bank debris or an inset rock may require a high arching throw. 

Line management is the last mechanic to build. Once the line is deployed, the rope should be body belayed with the rope playing out on the down river hip. This will prevent the rescuer from being dragged in or losing the rope unintentionally. 

All of these fundamentals can be reviewed at the table and then practiced in the bay before moving to the water. Indoor swimming pools are also usually very accommodating to local fire departments as a training resource. 

Train hard.

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