National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System: Water Rescue Operations

Fire departments protecting areas with moving water face unique challenges when it comes to equipment, training, and operations. Moving water becomes a threatening menace when it changes from being under our control to being the medium we battle to perform rescues.
“Our department [name omitted] was dispatched to assist searching for a victim who had been fishing with his partner when he slipped and went into the river. The victim’s fishing partner attempted to rescue the victim with fishing pole without success, so 911 was activated. The victim was last seen above water 35 feet from the rocks and was never seen going under the surface…The weather was clear with good visibility and temperatures at 50-55 degrees. There was no significant wind. The water temperature was 38 degrees. The water was stained brown-green, flowing higher than normal, and water was being released from the dam. The water class was mostly 2 with some class 3 noted downstream. The location consisted of trees, rocks and some steep cliffs…The initial plan was to do a search with Boat [1] in ‘last seen location’, river left and downstream to a slack water area near a log jam. When this was completed, the search area was to be extended downstream river left meeting with shore observation personnel from the Sheriff’s Office. We would then close the box in a rescue mode looking for the victim above water. When this was completed, if the victim is not located in the search area, we would transition to a recovery mode…It was sometime later (about two hours) that the Sheriff’s Office Boat, with two deputies and one FF from our department onboard, and boat from another department was asked to search down river. Not aware of the rougher water, these boats started down river with the Sheriff’s Office boat leading. Boat [1], being on a different radio frequency, was not aware of the other boats’ assignment…At some point the Sheriff’s Office boat lost sight of the other, and, with the rougher water, the Sheriff’s Office boat attempted to pull out of the current to wait for them. During the maneuver, the Sheriff’s Office Boat capsized, placing all three rescuers into the water. Some or all were trapped under the boat for an unspecified time. The FF from our department attempted three times to clear the boat. During that time the FF swallowed and inhaled water making the attempts more difficult…”

This week’s featured firefighter near-miss report reminds us that there will always be situations where both powerful forces of nature, fire and water, have the upper hand. Our best course of action is to establish SOPs, follow those SOPs religiously, and make sure all personnel are trained frequently in safety and survival skills.

1.      Few areas in the country are exempt from the possibility of a water rescue. What equipment, PPE, and training have you had in the last two years that prepare you to execute a water rescue?

2.      Conduct an Internet search for the terms “Class 2” and “Class 3” water. What are the differences between the two and how do the hazards differ?

3.      Are water rescues in your jurisdiction a joint fire/law enforcement/EMS effort? If so, what coordinating efforts are used to unify command?

4.      If water rescues in your jurisdiction are independent efforts, what problems exist due to the lack of a unified command?

5.      What is the minimum PPE required for conducting water rescues? What PPE should be prohibited from being used during water rescue operations and why?

The threats encountered during water rescue operations are often insidious. Effective water rescue requires proper training, equipment, and a plan to ensure rescuers don’t become victims.

Did this near-miss report jog your memory about a near miss you experienced, observed or avoided? Tell the fire service your story through today so everyone goes home tomorrow.


Note: The questions posed by the reviewers are designed to generate discussion and thought in the name of promoting firefighter safety. They are not intended to pass judgment on the actions and performance of individuals in the reports.

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