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Swiftwater Rescue
Developing a Swiftwater Rescue Plan

by: Mark A. Brown

Recently, I was assigned the task of creating some SOG's for our swiftwater team. We call them Standard Operating Guidelines as opposed to Standard Operating Procedure... that's another story! "Gladly" I said. Thinking to myself, "How could I possibly write this plan with my schedule." Well it wasn't long before I had several plans on my desk, thanks to several of my associates, that I could draw upon. Napa County, Phoenix Fire, and LA County all had plans in existance. From these I developed the plan below.



During the past several years, there has been an increase in the number of water rescue incidents in the . This is in part due to the continued influx of people unaware of the dangers associated with large volumes of water. Water rescue incidents generally occur because victims either knowingly enter the water, or otherwise find themselves in the water and unable to remove themselves from the dangers associated with that body of water. There is always a possibility of more victims becoming stranded because of the good intentions of caring citizens, and/or untrained rescue personnel, trying to help.


Water Rescue operations present a significant danger to fire district personnel. The safe and effective management of these types of operations requires basic to very specialized considerations. This procedure identifies some of the considerations that must be included in managing these types of incidents. It shall be the policy of the to not allow fire district personnel to participate in water rescue activity without the use of proper safety equipment.


For the purpose of emergency response, a water rescue shall be defined as any incident that involves the removal of victim(s) from any body of water other than a swimming pool. This shall include rivers, creeks, lakes, washes, storm drains, or any body of water, whether still of moving.


All potential water rescues will be dispatched as water rescue (WR). A usual dispatch will include first out rescue and one additional engine. Each unit is to be staffed with a minimum of two members of the SR team. A water rescue assignment will include one chief officer.

Due to the potential danger of these types of incidents, it is imperative that the first arriving company officer assumes command.


After assuming Command, Command must secure the immediate area and assure that no more citizens enter the water. Well intentioned, untrained citizens can quickly become victims. Command must identify the problem and make a decision whether to operate in the rescue or recovery mode. If operating in the rescue mode, Command should consider all of the potential hazards to rescuers and victims. Command should consider the risk/benefit factor. A risk/benefit factor is a subjective decision that weighs the benefits of what is to gain versus what can be lost if the worst happens. If the benefit is high, and the risk to rescuers is low, Command should move forward with the action plan. If the risk is high to rescuers and the benefit is low, Command should discuss with the SR team and develop an action plan to make recovery.

If Command is operating in the rescue mode, a quick assessment of the hazards associated with the water must be made (i.e., speed, temperature, hydraulics, debris, and possible contamination). If the victim can be seen, Command should determine if the victim is in immediate life-threatening danger or is relatively safe and secure for the moment. If the victim is in immediate life-threatening danger, rescue must be quick.

Rescue options will be considered and executed in order from low risk to high risk. "Reach-Throw-Row-Go-Helo" shall be the proper order of execution to effect rescue. If possible, Reach the victim with whatever means possible (i.e., pike pole, stick). If the victim were too far out in the water to reach something, Throw would be the next option available. Throw the victim a throw rope bag. The victim should grab the rope, but not tie it around himself/herself, and the rescuer will pendulum belay victim to shore. If the victim cannot be reached by means of Reach or Throw, Command should consider waiting for the Tactical Rescue Team (TRT) before committing personnel to the rescue.

The following options are considered technical high-risk operations that require specialized training and equipment. Row is the next rescue operation for consideration. Boat base operations can be a safe and effective means of rescue with proper training and equipment. If the Fire District inflatable boat is not available, Go should be the next consideration.

Any time a rescuer is placed into the water to effect rescue, it is considered to be a dangerous operation. Rescuers can be at extreme risk. Prior to placing a rescuer in the water, Command and the rescuers involved should consider the risk/benefit factor again. If the hazards associated with placing a rescuer in the water are too high, Command should consider the use of a Coast Guard helicopter (Helo).

If a water rescue operation turns into a long technical operation, Command should consider sectorization. Command should consider the need for the following groups during swift water operations.

Upstream Group. This group consists of personnel whose responsibility would be to watch for and advise Command of any obstacles and/or hazards (i.e., top loads, suspended loads) that may be floating downstream and may hinder the rescue operation.

Downstream Group. This group consists of personnel whose responsibility would be to be prepared to rescue victims and rescuers that may be swept downstream. All personnel in this group should have a throw rope bag in hand. There should be downstream personnel on both sides of the river.

River Right/Left Group. Command should assign personnel to the opposite bank that the operation is being conducted from. Personnel assigned to this group will be responsible for rigging the opposite end of a rope rescue system being set up.

Rescue Group. Personnel assigned to this group are responsible for developing an action plan with Command. Once the action plan has been developed, rescue group will be responsible for executing the plan in the safest possible manner.

Resource Group. Command should assign one individual from the TRT to Resource Group. Resource sector will be responsible for securing and assigning any equipment needed for technical rescue operations. Resource Sector will be responsible for retrieving and inventorying any equipment issued for the operation. Resource Sector will log all rope used for the operation on the rope log cards assigned to that rope.

Medical Group. Personnel assigned to Medical Group will be responsible for providing BLS/ALS treatment to victims removed from the water.

Mark Brown is a vice president at Lee & Associates in charge of technology. You can find him high upon a mountain... somewhere... with a portable computer of course.

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