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EMS Today 2018 Quick Take: Swift water rescue safety and techniques

Wear appropriate gear, build in fail safes and backup plans, and be aware of changing water conditions to conduct a successful swift water rescue


There are a number of safety threats in a swift water rescue beyond drowning.



CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A successful shore-based swift water rescue begins with pre-planning, the right equipment, thorough training and an effective scene assessment.

In their session at EMS Today 2018, presenters Greg Merrell, EMT, major, Oklahoma City Fire Department; and Brian Weatherford, paramedic, major, Norman (Okla.) Fire Department, discussed on-scene actions to facilitate a safe rescue with the following objectives:

  • Locate.
  • Access.
  • Stabilize.
  • Extricate.
  • Transport.

Memorable quotes on swift water rescue

“Water rescues occur in any jurisdiction. I don’t care how urban or rural it is. If I ask you what happens if you get five inches of rain in an hour, you can think of the intersection in your community that’s going to flood out.” –Greg Merrell

“When water is at flood stage – that is not the time to go out and seize the opportunity and train. Debris and unpredictable conditions make it too dangerous.” –Brian Weatherford

“I promise you if you fall in swift water, you’re going to wish you had a helmet on. Anticipate there’s a possibility you’re going to end up in the water.” –Greg Merrell

“Have a plan B figured out before plan A fails.” –Greg Merrell

Top takeaways on swift water rescue techniques

Merrell noted swift water rescue is one of the most dangerous technical rescues, and one of the most important to train on, because every rescue professional is likely to experience at least one in their career. Even if your community has a designated swift water rescue team, water rescues don’t happen one at a time. They are usually tied to flooding, and will occur in batches, requiring multiple active rescue crews. He and Weatherford offered the following tips and takeaways on swift water rescues.

1. Follow the 15 absolutes in water rescue practices:

The 15 absolutes of swift water rescue have been a cornerstone of the Rescue 3 International Swiftwater Rescue Technician program since 1991:

  1. If you’re on a water rescue, wear a PFD. Wear a helmet as well.
  2. Always deploy upstream spotters to let you know what is coming down toward your team.
  3. You and your safety is the first priority. Your partner and your team come second. The victim is last. “Make decisions with your head, not your heart,” Merrell stressed.
  4. Always have a backup plan.
  5. Always have multiple downstream backups.
  6. Keep it simple. Don’t make it too complicated.
  7. Always have the right equipment.
  8. Never put your feet down if you’re swept away and swimming; unless you are entering or leaving an eddy, chasing a distressed swimmer, or are approaching a debris pile or strainer.
  9. Never count on the victim to help in his or her own rescue. If anything, they’ll hinder it.
  10. Never tie a rope around a rescuer. To secure a rescuer, attach any lines to a quick release blowout strap.
  11. Never tie a tension line at right angles.
  12. Never stand inside the bight.
  13. Never lose contact with the victim.
  14. Given the choice between a fire helmet and no helmet, go with no helmet.
  15. Always be proactive.

2. Water is not the only danger in a swift water rescue

There are a number of safety threats in a swift water rescue beyond drowning:

  • Hypothermia.
  • Trauma.
  • Remote areas.
  • Frightened victims.
  • Energy equipment (power lines, floating propane tanks, etc.).

Watch your rescuers and victims for signs of hypothermia, Merell advised. Even in warmer months, most water you’ll encounter in a swift water rescue is rain water, which is cold enough to hinder your strength and dexterity. He’s witnessed a member of an experienced swift water rescue team unable to clip a carabiner to a rope due to the effects of cold water in a training drill.

Floating debris is a serious hazard in a water rescue. It can cause entanglement, pinning and crushing. Merell also recommended rescuers on foot sound the water, using old broom handles, to identify potential hazards or holes where covers have floated away.

3. Water is predictable

Water is powerful and relentless, but predictable, Weatherford explained. One of the first actions you should take at a water rescue scene is to mark the water levels and orient to the water (upstream, downstream, left river, right river), so everyone is on the same page and you can monitor changing conditions.

The next step is to identify factors in the water that can indicate a potential refuge (e.g., an eddy – the calm water behind an obstruction), a hazard (e.g., an upstream v that shows an underwater obstruction) or a “keeper” (e.g., a frowning hydraulic – roiling water with edges that curve upstream, indicating an area where potential victims may be stuck, where escape is difficult).

There’s not a definitive answer to what each signifies, but being aware that something is causing a change in water flow can identify areas to avoid or to stage in.

4. Active rescue is not the only important role on scene

On any given shore-based water rescue scene, you’ll likely encounter a crowd – bystanders, victim families, the media, and a number of EMS, fire and law enforcement professionals. Get those rescuers deployed appropriately along the shifting rescue scene.

It’s important to deploy emergency resources both up- and down-stream. Always have an upstream spotter who can alert the rescue team to debris, hazards or potential victims heading their way. Remember how loud these scenes can get. Equip spotters with whistles (that don’t contain a pea element that can malfunction when wet) so they can signal rescuers when needed.

Just as important – or even more so – deploy downstream backups. Merrell equated these backups to the rapid intervention team (RIT) on the fireground. They’re there to assist any rescuers (or victims) who slip, trip or fall, and are caught in the water’s flow.

These might not be the most glamorous or desired roles on scene, so you may have to designate people. Merrell reminded attendees who find themselves taken out of the immediate action to spot or provide backup, “We’re not in it for the glory. We’re here to help people. Even if you don’t save anyone, you’re doing your job.”

Learn more about water rescue

Kerri Hatt is editor-in-chief, EMS1, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. Prior to joining Lexipol, she served as an editor for medical allied health B2B publications and communities. Kerri has a bachelor’s degree in English from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is based out of Charleston, SC. Share your personal and agency successes, strategies and stories with Kerri at