Before You Get in the Water

By Jacob McAfee

Swift water rescue is one of the most challenging and physically demanding operations rescue personnel can face. Water in itself can be a daunting enemy; as a rescuer you must at all times respect the water, its strength, and its inherent dangers. Although training for rescues in a water environment has increased, much more needs to be done. Many organizations don’t see the need for swift water training if their response areas don’t have a large, fast-moving body of water. Keep in mind, swift water is as simple as it sounds; it is any amount of water running downhill at speed. Don’t be fooled. As the water volume and speed increases, it creates its own set of rules and is littered with traps difficult to see by the untrained eye. These traps can easily take the life of any would be rescuer without the proper awareness, training, and equipment.

Swift water rescue crosses into other technical rescue spectrums that are ultra-high risk as well including advanced rope skills and high-angle rescue. If you know your department has only minimal personnel trained in swift water or advanced rope, be prepared to request those technical teams. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is specialized and mandatory. No rescuer should get within 10 feet of the shore without a personal floatation device (PFD), and should absolutely NOT be wearing bunker gear. Some of the most common mistakes resulting from rescuer injury or death result in inadequate PPE and a lack of swift water hydrology, strategies, or tactics. Following are some Do’s and Don’ts of swift water rescue:


  • Wear a PFD within 10 feet of the shore.
  • Have a plan A, B, and C.
  • Always have downstream safety.
  • Deploy upstream spotters.
  • KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)/Use the strategy with the lowest risk to your personnel.
  • Use the right equipment.
  • Always remember your priorities.



  • Put your feet down (if in the water).
  • Count on the victim to be cooperative.
  • Tie a rope around a rescuer.
  • Use a rope at a 90° angle.
  • Stand in the bight of a rope.
  • Wear fixed brim helmets.
  • Lose the victim.
  • Modify or change your PPE into something for which it is not designed.



PPE falls into three basic categories: thermal protection, physical protection, and flotation. Following are some of the basic and recommended PPE for swift water rescue:

  • A helmet. Make sure you use a water rescue helmet (No fire service helmets!).
  • A PFD. Preferably a U.S. Coast Guard Type III. Ensure PFDs have a sewn-in chest harness with a quick release buckle for the tether. Chest harnesses should have an attachment point on the back near the shoulder blades to tether a rescuer to rope as well as a release that you can operate with one hand in fast-moving water.
  • A knife. Knifes are critically important when working with any type of rope or lines in water. Any entanglement issues or malfunctions with your quick release buckle might necessitate the need of your knife to save your life.
  • Visibility. This is key; reflective strips on your PPE, chem lights, and strobes will help you remain visible.
  • Clothing. As previously stated, NO bunker gear! Water rescue clothing typically consists of a wet suit or a dry suit, depending on situation and conditions. Wet suits use a layer of water trapped in between the suit and the body, which creates an insulation barrier d for the wearer to keep them warm. It does not fare well out of the water however as the suit leaves the rescuer open to environmental conditions such as wind and temperature possibly causing hypothermic conditions. Dry suits keep the wearer dry and are sealed by rubber gaskets at the neck, arms, and legs accompanied by a water proof zipper. Warm clothing will need to be worn in the dry suit as thermal insulation. Dry suits may be better used in contaminated water and to keep the rescuer dry. Because of the heat retaining properties the rescuer can be subjected to overheating in labor intensive operations. Water robs the body of heat 25 percent faster than air the same temperature.
  • Foot protection; normally consists of neoprene water booties, sneakers, a nonslip boot, or swim fins. Swim fins may greatly increase the speed of the rescuer in the water but their use takes training and frequent use to be an advantage.
  • Throw bags, which are available in many lengths and styles. Choose what works best for your team. Throw bags contribute to almost all styles of water rescue; having one and knowing how to use it makes you a more dynamic water rescuer.

As with all disciplines, swift water rescue has its foundation in a series of basic skills sets. The stronger and more proficient you are with your basics, the bigger and better departments can build your team. Two of the most imbedded basics that often get overlooked are swimming and the use of throw bags. Swimming is the core of water-based rescue. Personnel need to be comfortable in the water, able to free themselves and swim clear of obstacles.

Too often, the ability to swim and the physical challenge that goes with it is believed to be replaced with PPE selection. Practice swimming in varied conditions with different techniques and while wearing full PPE. Throw bags are often looked at as a simple concept, and therefore deemed simple. This is not the case! Throw bags open up many options to rescuers. They can quite literally be your lifeline at times. As a rescuer, you need to know how to make your throw bags work for—and not against—you.

Techniques like belaying a victim from your downstream hand allow you to keep your footing while not rotating your whole torso as the victim floats past you. Remember, a victim floating in a moving body of water is moving the same speed as the water, so the proper placement of a thrown line is at and through the victim ideally traveling over his head and falling on his shoulders. You don’t want to lead or trail the line, making the victim unnecessarily have to swim. These skills and others like it are the key to making an effective rescue. Training on the basics and being proficient in these skills will allow you to quickly determine the tactics that work best for your team during a rescue situation.

One thing that always amazed me was the number of ways swift water challenges a rescuer in the water. Swift water is relentless and powerful. There is no break while in the water; the consistent and relentless power is always working against you. Knowing how to move in the water and how to counter its offensive is critical knowledge for anyone attempting a water rescue. Maneuvering in the water is all about angles, body position, and knowledge of basic hydrology. When swimming in the current always use a ferry angle.

  • When swimming against the current or to move from one object to the other, swim with your body positioned at a 45° angle to the current in the direction you want to swim. This will essentially cause the current to push you in the direction you’re facing as it hits the side of your body. Otherwise, you’re fighting current the whole way, and you will just exhaust yourself.
  • If you are going downstream, you must use angles as well. When floating in the water, always keep your feet up. One of the most common entrapments in the water happens when people get their feet wedged in the water’s floor. Swim with your feet downstream, toes up, arms out to paddle, and breath at the bottom of a swell not the top.
  • While floating, you will use your legs as rudders and your arms to aid steering or slow descent. You will position your body at a 45° angle with your feet pointing in the opposite direction you want to travel. If you want to go right, your body will be at a 45° angle with your feet pointing left.

Common water features and hydrology include the following:

  • Helical flows: A corkscrew motion spinning off the banks downstream, which push objects mid-current.
  • Downstream “V”: Free of obstructions, safe route down river.
  • Upstream “V” (photo 1): Avoid upstream “V’s,” could be difficult to get back into the current.
  • Strainers: Avoid at all cost. Strainers are objects in the river that water flows through but objects do not. Note: If you have to negotiate a strainer, face it, extend your arms fully, and push your body over. If you get into a strainer, it’s almost impossible to get free. Many water instructors teach students to aggressively swim toward strainers to gain momentum; this allows the swimmer to better position himself on the obstruction.
  • Eddy (photo 2): A calm area behind and object created by water flowing around an object. This is a safe haven.
  • Vertical drops: These can be a dangerous entrapment issue for rescuers because of the vertical feet-down position it forces rescuers in. To avoid this, put your knees to your chest and ball up when going over a vertical drop.
  • Holes/Keepers/Low Head Dam: As the water dives down over an obstacle, it causes a recirculating current and flows back up stream. This is a common place for swimmers to become trapped.

(1) Photos by author.



Just as with any incident, gathering of information, size-up, and assessing the risk will help you determine your tactics. Typically, swift water tactics are based on the level of risk to the rescuer and the probability of a survivable victim. Your number-one incident priority on a swift water incident is life safety; the safety of your personnel should be at the top of that list. Typically, water rescues are broken down into the following categories: shore-based, boat-assisted, boat-based, in water contact, and helicopter rescues.

Tactics in order of lowest to highest risk to the rescuer are the following:

Talk (shore-based).                                                     

Reach (Shore based-hose, pole, and so on).

Throw (Shore based-throw bag).

Row (boat-assisted/boat-based).

GO (In water rescue).

TOW (boat-assisted).


With water being the dynamic environment it is, you have to be prepared to progress in your tactics quickly. You need to plan two steps ahead and be immediately ready to move to the next step if your first plan doesn’t work. On the command side, this means always having additional assets moving toward the scene. A rope team, helicopter, and secondary swift water team could be a big help if our rescue begins to deteriorate.

Regarding operations, you need to be willing to advance in tactics and not get stuck in the tunnel vision of your first choice if that choice doesn’t work. You MUST have a rescue plan for foot entrapments and strainers before they happen. Tethering a rescuer as he goes to “throw” allows for a quick transition into a “go,” if necessary. You need to be as dynamic as the environment in which you are operating.

As I mentioned earlier, swift water crosses into advanced rope rescue skills. Some common technical rope skills during a swift water rescue might include high-angle rescue tactics for cross canyon/high-angle pickoffs, tension diagonals (photo 3), and boat operations for in-water contact rescues. Almost everything done during a swift water incident outside of boat-based and unassisted in water rescue involves some type and level of technical rope skills. Remember, whenever you transition from swift water to another technical discipline, a whole new set of rules can apply. For example, hard tethering a rescuer without a quick release device is a definite “don’t” in swift water rescue, but it is a definite must of high-angle rescue. Make sure you have qualified competent technicians on scene to make those determinations.             



(4, 5) Highline operations.


You will need a strong incident command structure (ICS) (Figure 1) quickly to be successful. Many river-based rescues could span miles before you realize it. A typical ICS can vary widely, but following is a common structure:

  • Incident commander,
  • safety,
  • public information officer,
  • liaison officer,
  • search group,
  • rescue group,
  • emergency medical services group,
  • rigging group,
  • downstream safety, and
  • upstream spotters.

It may be necessary to create divisions because of the large geographic area you must cover; as always, expand or take away as needed. When assigning your group leaders, don’t be afraid to look outside of your current rank structure. Being an outstanding structural officer does not make you a shoe-in for a technical rescue officer’s position. Assign commanders who have technician training and are suited to lead your team through these low-frequency high risk calls.

FIGURE 1. ICS for Swift Water Rescues.

Get out and train! Sometimes, having a basic awareness of how the water moves, its inherent dangers, and knowing how to select the proper PPE will increase situational awareness and help prevent a swift water line-of-duty death or near miss. Knowing how identify a rescue as being out of your team’s scope because of equipment or training deficiencies can end up saving more lives than actually attempting the rescue. Swift water rescue is a very dynamic field; although this article gives some basic principles of swift water rescue, it just barely touches the surface. There is no substitute for hands-on training. I encourage you to at least provide training to your members that will give them the ability to identify and respect the dangers the water presents and how to operate safely around it.

Author’s note: Special Thanks to Lieutenant Conor Miller of West Point Fire and Emergency Services for his contribution.


Jacob McAfee is a 14-year veteran in the fire & emergency services profession, serving in a variety of positions across the military and Department of Defense. He is the Assistant Chief of Operations at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. McAfee began his career with the United States Marine Corps as an Aircraft Rescue Firefighter and after eight years of service and multiple deployments he left active service honorably in 2007. He’s had the privilege to lead and mentor personnel in Iraq as a captain and division chief with outstanding results. Since then he has served as an assistant chief of operations, fire marshal, fire prevention chief, and health and fitness coordinator as a civilian with the Department of Defense. 

McAfee is a Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designee and has earned a Master’s Degree in Occupational Safety and Health and Emergency Management. Currently Jacob is working on his PhD in emergency Management with Capella University and is attending the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He is an instructor for the California Office of Emergency services—hazardous materials section, the California State Fire Marshal, the National Safety Council, and the American Heart Association. McAfee also instructs hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, and incident command courses throughout California. He is IFSAC/Pro Board certified Fire Officer IV, Inspector III, Instructor III, hazmat technician, hazmat officer, confined space technician, swift water rescue technician, trench rescue technician, advanced rope, and collapse structure technician.

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