FDNY Swift Water Rescue Operations

(1) Smoldering fires continued throughout the night on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Queens, and Beach 115th Street, where a row of stores burned down. (Photos by Esther Horvath.)
(1) Smoldering fires continued throughout the night on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Queens, and Beach 115th Street, where a row of stores burned down. (Photos by Esther Horvath.)


The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Special Op-erations Command (SOC) for the past couple of years has been preparing its members to respond to another major disaster in New York City (NYC). The vision of having a specialized task force with members of the SOC was planned by rescue chiefs prior to September 11, 2001, but the chiefs were subsequently killed when NYC was attacked on September 11, 2001. Following these attacks on NYC, it was more apparent than ever that the FDNY SOC needed a cache of equipment and tools to respond to any major disaster in or around NYC so that it could operate independently of the on-duty five rescue and seven squad companies. With the support of FDNY staff, a team was assembled to build an All Hazards Task Force that would resemble a FEMA Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) team but would have more robust capabilities. Equipment and tools were procured. Over the past five years, the FDNY SOC Task Force (TF) was organized and continues to be built. The need for a separate cache of equipment and tools to supplement SOC rescue and squad companies during a major event that requires maximum resources was validated during Hurricane Sandy.

The first test of the TF was in April 2011 when a team of SOC members was deployed to the Center for National Response (CNR) training facility in Gallagher, West Virginia, to operate with the FDNY Incident Management Team (IMT) at a simulated bomb attack in the Midtown Tunnel. Both teams operated for more than four days in a first-of-its-kind exercise. Integrating a search and rescue TF with an IMT from the same city worked extremely well, and many valuable lessons were learned. The TF was able to build off this exercise and to fix any deficiencies identified.

Less than six months after the exercise at the CNR, Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast. New York State (NYS) requested FDNY’s mutual-aid swift water teams to assist with flooding in Broome County in the Binghamton region of NYS. This was the first deployment of the newly formed TF outside of NYC. Five swift water teams, along with command, planning, medical, communications, and logistic components, responded. Findings of the after-action critique of this activation enabled the TF to further refine operations and increase efficiency and effectiveness. We also learned from this deployment and the exercise in West Virginia the importance of those TF members who work behind the scenes in the areas of logistics, planning, and communications. There is no glory in these positions, but they are the backbone of a TF and directly impact the success of search and rescue operations. These three SOC functions proved vital in the TF’s historical and unprecedented response to Hurricane Sandy in NYC on October 29, 2012.


(2) Homeowners in Rockaway, Queens, stand next to their burned-out house at Beach 130th Street. Twelve to 15 homes were lost on that block.
(2) Homeowners in Rockaway, Queens, stand next to their burned-out house at Beach 130th Street. Twelve to 15 homes were lost on that block.

Rescue operations, which fall under the SOC, began the planning process to put the TF into operation and alerted the planning team and logistic managers of the SOC-TF and SOC-Tool Unit three days before the storm made landfall. The Tool Unit purchases, supplies, and repairs all technical rescue equipment for the SOC companies. Lessons learned from the previous deployments identified the need to start the planning process early because it takes time to roster a team, provide equipment and tools, and place teams into position. Both units brought in key members, and several components of the SOC-TF were called in to begin the process.

It was critical that the planning team alert SOC companies that swift water-trained members would be needed once the SOC-TF was activated. The plan was to keep all special units in service and provide specialized swift water teams using equipment from the TF and Tool Unit. It also provided for the following:

  • Six teams comprised of an officer and five firefighters outfitted as a National Incident Management System (NIMS) Type 3 Swift Water Team.
  • An additional rescue and squad company equipped with the same swift water packages that would fall under TF leadership.
  • Operation in a manner similar to that of a FEMA US&R team but with greater capabilities for more water operations.
  • Use of a modular approach.
  • Providing each member with the following swift water personal protective equipment (PPE): dry suits, helmets, gloves, boots, knife, flashlight strobe light, and personal flotation device.
  • Outfitting each swift water team with two inflatable boats, motors, oars, ropes, rigging equipment, a halligan, an ax, and certified first responder-defibrillator (CFR-D) equipment and radios.

The TF would use a spare engine pumper acquired from the FDNY Division of Training. It provided the FDNY and NYC with an additional 60 trained members capable of operating in a swift water environment. FDNY staff strategically placed these eight swift water teams in locations throughout the city that would receive the highest flood water surges.

Three FDNY Marine Operations water rescue teams supplemented the TF swift water teams. The water rescue teams’ fiberglass boats, although heavier and less mobile than the inflatable boats used by the swift water teams, would be better in situations requiring stability, such as when using a portable ladder or transporting a large number of rescued victims.

Having these swift water assets imbedded in flood-prone areas before Hurricane Sandy made landfall proved to be extremely important because once the surge began, many of the hard-hit areas were inaccessible by units trying to traverse the high water levels found in all five NYC boroughs. The TF swift water teams supplemented FDNY rescue companies—one was located in each borough—and seven squad companies, located in their respective firehouses in all five boroughs. This doubled the number of personnel. Members trained in technical rescue and rescue operations felt prepared to handle all emergencies including water operations.

Rescue Battalion

The Rescue Battalion added a second section. Rescue Battalion 1 and Rescue Battalion 2 would respond to all multiple-alarm fires and incidents involving a technical rescue. They also became leaders for the TF. Rescue Operations also added additional personnel to the two Tactical Support Units; the Dewatering Unit; the Compressor Unit; the Logistics Unit; and the Hook Truck, which transports large-capacity pumps for dewatering operations.


Hurricane Sandy proved to be one of the busiest times for responses in FDNY history. On a normal day, FDNY units respond to approximately 3,000 incidents; during Hurricane Sandy, this number was close to 13,000. Having teams respond to water emergencies in every borough left the rescue and squad companies available to respond to a crane collapse, a building collapse, nine multiple-alarm fires, and a scuba dive job in a private dwelling in Staten Island as well as numerous water rescues. Teams removed and rescued approximately 500 civilians on the night of October 29 and another 500 on October 30. The teams worked in conditions of winds gusts of 75 miles per hour (mph). They stretched handlines in chest-high water with engine and ladder companies in flooded areas other units couldn’t access. They removed multiple victims trapped in homes and exposures on fire with inflatable boats. Because of the number of victims trapped, some teams worked more than 30 hours straight rescuing people stranded in their attics, on top of their homes, and stuck in their basements because water levels rose so quickly that they had no time to get out.

(3) The ocean met the bay at Breezy Point, Queens, where firefighters fought fires in chest-high water.
(3) The ocean met the bay at Breezy Point, Queens, where firefighters fought fires in chest-high water.

It was extremely critical that the FDNY activated the TF and had all FDNY companies respond for the duration of Hurricane Sandy because many lives were threatened at the height of the storm. The high water levels and the number of people trapped, especially in parts of Staten Island, Rockaway Peninsula, and Breezy Point, caused members to work until they were completely exhausted or their boats and motors became inoperative.

SOC deployed 21 inflatable boats, and 10 were in need of repairs by the following morning. The Rockaway and Breezy Point companies were dealing with large multiple-alarm fires, and relief companies could not get the apparatus through the flooded streets to assist. It was terribly frustrating for companies that could see the fires burning but could not get to them to help. In lower Manhattan, teams surrounded by water rescued motorists stranded in their cars on the FDR Drive, adjacent to the East River, and the West Side Highway, alongside the Hudson River.

The TF faced many obstacles while operating in the surging flood waters in most areas of NYC. The teams were provided with pumpers, which made it very challenging to transport inflatable boats and motors. The boats were strapped down to the top of the hosebeds. It was difficult and dangerous to drive with the boat on top of the pumper; safety became an issue when members had to remove the boats from the hosebed in the 75-mph winds. The pumper’s high wheel base proved beneficial for teams when they needed to traverse the flooded streets.

(4) This Breezy Point firehouse is flooded. Much of the fire equipment and apparatus was destroyed.
(4) This Breezy Point firehouse is flooded. Much of the fire equipment and apparatus was destroyed.

Removing rescued victims was complicated. Once victims were removed from burning buildings, flooded homes, or trapped vehicles, there was no immediate safe place to bring them. It was either too far to bring them to an area that wasn’t flooded or it took too long—and time was of the essence to rescue other trapped people. At times, civilians were removed to another home on the same block. If no one was home, FDNY members forced the door so they could get back to rescuing other trapped civilians. Dispatchers were inundated with calls for help; it was hard to get the information to the teams because most of the time they were away from the radio on the apparatus.


TF communications monitored all city agency frequencies at Rescue Operations headquarters and transmitted over the 400-Mhz radios to the teams and squad companies the locations of victims who were in immediate need of help. TF communications played a vital role in coordinating the teams and SOC units. As the water levels rose, and with the loss of lights, finding homes and street locations became arduous tasks. The apparatus had Global Positioning System devices, but they created challenges when the teams were operating from their inflatable boats. Searching in boats in an urban environment changes the dynamic, especially with water levels of up to 14 feet.

TF teams operated for two full days, rescuing and removing close to 1,000 people from flooded areas. On day three, SOC-TF transitioned to search and rescue teams in conjunction with Federal Emergency Management Agency US&R teams and FDNY TFs comprised of ladder, engine, and battalion chiefs. The most damaged areas were sectioned off, and the TF put together six teams, each consisting of an officer and five firefighters. These teams carried water rescue PPE in addition to search cameras, listening devices, and forcible entry tools.

A medical component was also imbedded with these teams to treat TF members and injured civilians. The FDNY operational plan was to search every house affected by Hurricane Sandy. The parameters were as follows: Teams were directed not to force doors or mark buildings. Teams were asked to keep a count of the total number of homes searched, victims removed/recovered, and homes that were unstable and required Buildings Department inspections.

The SOC-TF operated in the hard-hit areas of Breezy Point and Rockaway, Queens, on Wednesday and searched more than 1,400 homes. Managers of the SOC-TF sectored the communities in need of search and created a grid to track and account for all homes searched. It was important to check every home to confirm the safety of all residents. It was an emotional time for many of the team members because many knew families in the communities and some had suffered losses to their own homes.

The following two operation periods, SOC-TF search and rescue teams were sent to Staten Island to team up with FEMA US&R assets; they covered the devastated South Shore communities. With a large commitment of personnel, a primary search was completed in this heavily damaged area of Staten Island. On completion of a primary search of all affected areas of NYC, the SOC once again transitioned into chain saw and dewatering operations to help residents. Teams equipped with chain saws and dewatering pumps worked the following six weeks to clear hundreds of trees and pump thousands of gallons of water from homes.

JOSEPH R. DOWNEY is a battalion chief, Rescue Battalion for the Fire Department of New York and the leader of the SOC-Task Force.

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