The use of improved helicopter-based swiftwater and flood rescue methods can save lives that might otherwise be lost to the effects of flash floods, slow-rise flooding, dam failure, hurricanes and tropical storms, and tsunamis. The methods presented in this article are based on a successful and time-proven helicopter-based swiftwater rescue program developed for the demanding conditions found in Southern California floods.

Helicopters are among the most versatile and effective rescue tools ever invented. They provide timely access and transportation options to fire/rescue personnel who might otherwise arrive too late to save victims. Helicopters provide highly mobile, multielevation platforms from which to launch rescue operations under otherwise daunting conditions. They are capable of conducting flood and swiftwater rescue operations at night, in rain, and in wind (within limits). They can perform aerial search operations that include thermal imaging, night vision, and other methods.

Helicopters are particularly helpful under conditions that may thwart the efforts of ground-based rescuers, such as wide and fast-moving floodwater, floodwaters choked with “strainers” and other navigation and contact rescue hazards, and rugged terrain that would challenge rescuers even in dry conditions. They allow rescuers to cover more ground and respond to more emergencies in the same time. For these reasons, helicopters have played a significant role in flood and swiftwater rescue operations for decades, saving many lives as a result.


Because of helicopters’ impressive success record, the public has been conditioned to expect error-free operations when they are involved. Increasingly, this expectation is turning to demand that helicopters commit to high-risk operations under worst-case scenarios. Sometimes these expectations lead to conflict. Practically every year there are disputes about whether helicopters should have been employed to rescue some stranded person or another in the United States. It has become rather commonplace for public officials and the news media to call into question the tactics employed by helicopter rescue crews and other rescuers, particularly after prominent events that are televised live.

Such disputes aren’t limited to this country. In the Taiwanese province of Chiayi in July 2000, four people perished after a botched, hours-long rescue attempt in a raging flood on the Pachang River. As of this writing, a police helicopter pilot faces a 10-year prison term and several firefighters are threatened with five to 10 years of prison after being indicted on charges ranging from breach of duty to negligence and manslaughter for their roles in the ill-fated swiftwater rescue operation—a situation that clearly called for the use of rescue helicopters.

In a news story carried by Reuters, a Taiwanese chief prosecutor was quoted as saying, “It was [the firefighters’ and pilot’s] duty to provide disaster relief, but they were unwilling to carry it out and passed it on to other people.”

In Taiwan, as in other nations, there is an implied responsibility for firefighters and other recognized rescuers to take calculated risks to save the lives of people in trouble. In some places, the fire department or another public safety organization is specifically designated as the agency with primary responsibility for conducting swiftwater rescue and other rescue operations. Could American firefighters and rescuers be criminally prosecuted or civilly sued for choosing not to initiate rescue operations under similar conditions? Many experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before a criminal case or civil lawsuit of this nature arises in the United States.


Helicopters operate under limitations imposed by the tremendous forces involved when victims and rescuers are subjected to moving water. This is sometimes evident when victims are trapped atop stationary objects (known as static swiftwater conditions), and it is often true when conditions require rescuers to enter moving water to reach victims trapped in trees, on cars, and in other predicaments. The limitations imposed on helicopters are especially evident in situations where victims are being swept away by flood waters (known as dynamic swiftwater conditions). This danger can be exacerbated if rescuers decide to use helicopter-mounted hoist rescue systems to attempt rescue in dynamic swiftwater situations.

Other limitations may include a scarcity of helicopter-based rescue teams whose members are formally trained, certified, properly equipped, and highly experienced in the strategies and tactics of helicopter-based swiftwater (helo swiftwater) rescue operations. Although the use of helicopters for EMS transportation and technical rescue is ever-expanding, swiftwater and flood rescue is not always a focus of fire and rescue agencies with their own fleets of helicopters.

If private helicopter contractors are used, the pilots and crews may not be trained in helo swiftwater operations, or they may be out of practice. If local fire/rescue agencies rely on military helicopters to provide airborne rescue service, the crew members may not have had formal training in helo swiftwater operations, and they may be inexperienced in the application of helicopter rescue to fast-moving water. In some cases, rescue-ready helicopters may be unavailable because of national security missions or war.

If there is no regular helicopter rescue service at all, other helicopter resources (including news media, utility companies, and lumber companies) may be pressed into service (or commandeered) on an ad-hoc basis, with crews who have no formal training in helo swiftwater methods and who have never attempted rescues under such conditions.

Even when rescue-ready helicopters are available, there may be a scarcity of ground-based swiftwater rescue teams equipped, experienced, and trained to work in concert with helicopters to conduct helo swiftwater operations.

The dynamic swimmer free evolution: (1) The copter sets up downstream of a victim and rescuer being swept along the flood channel, and the air crew person lowers the “short-haul” rope to the water’s surface, where it will be both visible and accessible to the rescuer. At the end of the rope is a special device commonly called a “capture ball,” to which the rescuer can clip his carabiner (and the victim’s carabiner) as he is swept past that point. The capture ball may be substituted with a large steel ring, a steel 8-plate, or another secure device that will quickly receive a carabiner. The air crew person maintains visual sighting on the victim and rescuer and (using a hands-free “hot microphone”) directs the pilot to position the helicopter in the most advantageous position. The pilot and the air crew person watch for flight hazards like electric and telephone wires and other aircraft. (Photos by author.)

(2) The rescuer, who entered the water independently of the helicopter (usually as a member of a ground-based USAR unit, rescue company, or swiftwater rescue team), has already “captured” the victim as they were being swept along the channel. The rescuer has placed a Cearley rescue strap or some other appropriate cinch strap device around the victim and is holding the carabiner attached to the end of the strap in his hand. He also has the carabiner from his own harness/tether in his hand. He has one arm around the shoulder and arm of the victim in front of him, which will be important later as he “locks the arm down” to prevent any possibility of the cinch strap riding up and over the victim’s shoulder as they are raised out of the water. As the rescuer and victim approach the place where the copter is waiting for them, the pilot prepares to move downstream, and the air crew person continues to direct the pilot in positioning. The rescuer is preparing to grab the capture ball and rope as he passes it.

(3) The rescuer has grabbed the capture ball and attached both carabiners to it. He has signaled to the air crew person that he is ready to be extracted (the signal is one arm extended and arcing down with the hand tapping the rescuer’s own head). The pilot is moving the copter downstream, matching the speed of the water and keeping pace with the rescuer and victim. The pilot is already gradually ascending to lift the victim and rescuer out of the water.

(4) The pilot lifts the rescuer and victim from the water as he continues to move the copter downstream, matching the speed of the water. Once the air crew person reports that the rescuer and victim are clear of the water, the pilot slows his downstream movement and carefully moves “river right” to get them over the wall and onto solid ground. Once the rescuer is deposited on the ground, he controls the victim and quickly disconnects with carabiners, separating them from the rope and allowing the copter to depart or to land.


Experienced helicopter-based rescuers understand that the main tool of their trade—a helicopter—is a machine that relies on many moving parts working in unison without failure to defy gravity and stay in the air, often in inclement weather, at high elevations, and over hostile terrain. This danger is accentuated when rescuers are dangling below the helicopter on a hoist cable or a rope while the craft is hovering (when they are most vulnerable to adverse events). Don’t forget the ever-present potential for mechanical problems or the danger of rotor strikes, flying debris, heavy wind and rain, darkness, fog, and impaired communication because of rotor wash.

Helicopter rescue teams also know about the potential for hoist cable failure, rope separation, collision with objects, and entanglement in power lines or vegetation. They know they (and the victims) are a jettison-able load whenever they are suspended below a helicopter. It is a generally accepted principle that the pilot and crew have the right—and indeed the responsibility, in some cases—to jettison the load by using a bolt cutter or punching a button that will explosively cut the cable or by taking a knife to the rope to prevent a crash if conditions dictate.

For a rescuer suspended below a helicopter, the decision made by the pilot and crew about whether to release the load (them) is somewhat academic; either option may have equally unpleasant personal consequences. The sudden separation of a cable or rope will result in a free-fall to the earth. The rescuer’s chance for reprieve is limited unless he happens to be dangling close to the ground or above some feature of the terrain (e.g., trees, snow drifts) that might dampen the force of impact when he hits the ground.

Whenever possible, pilots will attempt to get the rescuer close to the ground before severing the cable. But that may not always be an option, and more than likely it won’t be a choice. There have been times where cutting the rescuer and even the victim loose actually saved their lives. This is exactly what occurred during a rescue on Mt. Hood in May 2002 when a Pavehawk helicopter crashed into the mountain seconds after the flight engineer severed the hoist cable, allowing the packaged victim and rescuer to fall harmlessly to the snow while the helicopter rolled 1,000 feet down the mountainside, ejecting crew members and rolling over them in the process.

Many observers saw the consequences of rescuers being “released” in another mishap that occurred during a mountain rescue training session in Europe in 2001. A pair of firefighter/rescuers was being hoisted into a helicopter during a cliff rescue simulation. Without warning, they were unceremoniously “released” onto the cliff face, apparently as the result of the cable’s being severed from within the craft. The rescuers, still connected to one another by their harnesses, tumbled several hundred feet over rocks and crevices until they mercifully reached a flat spot that stopped their headlong fall. Both firefighters were severely injured and are lucky to have survived at all. This mishap—one of the few filmed in graphic detail—serves today as a case study for some helicopter rescue operations courses.

This is not to say that rescuers should not be “released” if the helicopter gets into trouble. To the contrary, the choice between losing your life and losing many lives is simple: The loss of one person is the lesser of two evils.

In addition to this, there may be unpleasant ramifications for the rescuer if the pilot and crew decide not to cut him free when a helicopter gets into trouble. For example, if the helicopter becomes entangled in power lines and suddenly free-falls or if an engine is lost and the pilot is forced to make an escape move, the rescuer might find himself unceremoniously dragged through trees, over rocks, or into water (and perhaps even dragged below the surface of the water as the helicopter sinks like a stone). Even if he gets onto the ground safely, the unfortunate rescuer may then be tethered to a hoist cable or rope directly below a falling helicopter or exposed to flying debris if the rotor system disintegrates on contact with the terrain.

For any rescuer who agrees to be suspended beneath a helicopter in an emergency or in training, there is an assumption of risk that he (and the victim who may be suspended with him) may be sacrificed to save the copter, the crew aboard it, and bystanders and fire/rescue personnel on the ground.

The dynamic tethered rescuer evolution: (5) As the copter deploys downstream of the victim, the rescuer is lowered from the skid of the copter by the air crew person (using a brake bar rack as the friction/lowering device). The operation is not altogether different from lowering a rescuer off a cliff face or the side of a building, except the rescue platform is a helicopter. The rescuer is attached to the rope by a rescue harness beneath his personal flotation device. The crew member is attached to the helicopter by a “pickoff strap” connected to an anchor in the cabin. To prevent shock-loading the short-haul system, the rescuer will maintain his feet on the skid as he is lowered beneath the copter until he inverts, at which time he will remove his feet from the skid and become uprighted once again.

(6) As the rescuer uprights himself, the air crew person continues to lower him toward the water (while at the same time tracking the location of the victim and directing the copter pilot to line up on the victim).

(7) With the rescuer at the water level, the air crew person stops lowering him and locks off the brake bar rack. Now the rescuer is ready to snag the victim. The pilot is directed to line up on the victim. The pilot is prepared to quickly lower the copter at the moment of contact between the victim and rescuer and to move downstream. This will provide sufficient slack in the line for the rescuer to grab the victim (swimming to grab him if necessary) and to capture him with a cinch strap.

(8) The rescuer can use his legs in the current to maneuver himself and to keep himself lined up with the victim and facing upstream.

(9) The pilot “drops and goes” (rotates the copter to face downstream while lowering its altitude by several feet to give slack on the rope) as the rescuer captures the victim. The copter will not follow overhead as the rescuer clips the victim’s cinch strap to the rope with a carabiner and signals to be lifted from the water. The time for this evolution (from the moment of contact betweenrescuer and victim to the moment of extraction from the water) can be as little as 10 seconds. This allows victims to be rescued from swift moving water, between bridge spans, and other similar situations.


One of the most recognizable roles of helicopters in rescue is vertical extraction of trapped, stranded, or injured victims through the use of a hoist system anchored in the helicopter, with the helicopter as an airborne rescue platform. In many regions, helicopter hoist rescue operations are practically a daily occurrence. A significant number of civilian fire/rescue and military helicopters are equipped with hoist rescue systems that use wire rope (specially manufactured cable) rated for working loads ranging from 460 to 600 pounds in a vertical lifting configuration.

Because of the tendency for rescuers and victims on the end of the cable to spin beneath hovering helicopters and other factors, it’s impractical to use more than one wire rope and, consequently, there is no belay or safety line. This is a departure from standard high angle rescue protocol, which generally calls for multiple lines as a form of redundant safety when raising patients and rescuers (to prevent them from falling if the hauling rope or the raising system fails). By definition, this means that helicopter hoist operations carry a higher degree of danger because of the absence of redundancy in the hoist system and the wire rope. If the cable fails, there is no belay, and the rescuer (and victim) will fall to the ground, with death or serious injury as a probable outcome.

Despite the relative dangers, the use of helicopter hoist operations will generally work for static swiftwater situations, and that is often a successful approach. However, the experience of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD) indicates that standard helicopter hoist rescue operations (e.g., those using a single wire rope deployed from a hoist mechanism mounted in the helicopter for vertical raising and lowering operations) are not appropriate for extracting victims from dynamic flood and swiftwater rescue situations. Furthermore, manufacturers of helicopter hoist and wire rope systems recommend against their use in dynamic swiftwater rescue conditions. Except for situations where the victim is stranded in a stationary position on a rock, vehicle, island, or other location where the force of moving water is not exerted directly on the victim or rescuer, attempting standard hoist rescue operations may be excessively dangerous to the victim, rescuers, helicopter crew, and bystanders.

As evidence for the position against using helicopter hoist systems for dynamic swiftwater rescues, consider the following facts:

  • The rated and actual capacity for hoist rescue mechanisms and wire rope may be exceeded by the forces applied to human bodies in moving water, resulting in catastrophic failure. Many hoist systems are rated by the manufacturers to lift between 460 and 600 pounds under vertical lifting conditions (i.e., where the victim and rescuer are being retrieved from directly below the helicopter, in a manner which allows them to ascend unimpeded directly into the helicopter without side-loading the hoist mechanism). The tremendous forces exerted by moving water pushing on a person’s body can easily exceed thousands of pounds and is likely to produce a side-loading condition. It may also produce one or more shock loads. This excessive force may damage (or sever) the hoist cable, the hoist motor, the hoist mechanism, or the support by which the hoist mechanism is attached to the airframe of the helicopter. Failure of any of these components because of excessive force exerted on the victim and rescuer may be catastrophic for them, the crew member operating the hoist while standing on the skid of the copter, and anybody beneath the victim and rescuer.
  • The potential for side-loading the hoist system to upset the delicate balance of the helicopter, which is most vulnerable while at a hover, is known as dynamic rollover. It may cause the helicopter to tilt radically to one side, which may immediately bring the helicopter down on the rescuer and victim and anyone else in the helicopter’s fall zone. Because the helicopter is generally hovering close to the ground when conducting swiftwater rescues (with a cable and victim/rescuer attached to it), there is little or no room for recovery from dynamic rollover, and a crash is almost certain. Obviously, such an event may be catastrophic for the victim, rescuers, the helicopter crew, and anyone else within the crash/debris scatter zone.
  • The hoist cable’s (or the victim and rescuer or their harnesses or clothing) snagging on heavy debris in the water or on trees, bridges, or other objects may suddenly pull the helicopter out of the sky. This, too, could prove catastrophic for everyone involved.


Standard hoist rescue operations are possible, appropriate, and sometimes the best tactic for static swiftwater situations. It is also possible, practical, and reasonably safe to rescue victims from dynamic swiftwater predicaments using helicopters but not the hoist rescue systems. This was demonstrated as early as 1992, when the LACoFD developed new methods for helicopter-based dynamic swiftwater rescue after a series of difficult operations, including the unsuccessful helo hoist rescue of a boy being swept down a waterway known as Rubio Creek (see Case Study 1).


Immediately following the Rubio Creek incident, the LACoFD embarked on a program to develop better ways to rescue victims from dynamic swiftwater conditions using helicopters. Officers, pilots, and firefighters of the Air Operations; the USAR (urban search and rescue) company; and members of the Water Rescue Committee had been convinced that it was possible to devise a regimen of helicopter-based swiftwater rescue evolutions that would work in water moving 15 to 40 miles per hour in narrow, concrete-lined urban streams and flood control channels. They convened as a committee to develop, test, and implement helicopter-based swiftwater rescue techniques that would work in dynamic and static swiftwater situations.

The biggest challenges facing the committee were the following:

  • How to secure a victim in the water for helicopter extraction in fast-moving water.
  • How to use the force of moving water to rescuers’ advantage (and prevent the forces from placing the helicopter in danger).
  • How to place the rescuer in a position where he could effect the extraction in fast-moving water.
  • How to rescue firefighters who get into trouble during swiftwater rescue operations.
  • How to anchor rope systems to medium-rated helicopters (e.g., Bell 205, Bell 412).
  • How to integrate existing LACoFD ground-based swiftwater rescue teams with fire/rescue helicopter units.

Early on, the committee recognized that the “old” concept of lowering a rescuer on a hoist cable and hovering a helicopter in a stationary position exposes the rescuer to the fierce current and debris rushing by in the water. It also creates an impact when the moving victim strikes the stationary rescuer. And expecting a stationary rescuer to “snag” a moving victim is similar to expecting a water skier to pick up a stationary swimmer as he zips past. There had to be a better way to pluck victims from moving water.

The committee agreed that successful helicopter-based rescue from fast-moving water is dependent on using something stronger and more reliable than helicopter hoist systems. It was agreed that 1/2-inch kernmantle rope rated at 9,000 pounds would provide sufficient strength to accomplish the job. It would also be necessary to adapt ground-based swiftwater rescue principles, which rely on using the power of the water to rescuers’ advantage. They agreed that when victims are being swept downstream in fast-moving water, it is far more effective to snatch them from peril while rescuers match the victim’s speed in the water than it is to fight the current by remaining stationary. They also agreed that it would be more effective to adapt existing short-haul rescue methods to the swiftwater environment.

After study and testing, the committee determined that the best alternative to a standard hoist operation was an amended version of the standard short haul. In a typical short haul, a rope or cable of varying length (depending on the task and the procedures established by each agency) is attached to an electrically operated hook mounted to the underbelly of the copter, or to a “belly band,” which encircles the floor of the cabin and the belly of the copter or some other substantial anchoring system appropriate for the particular helicopter. A rescuer (or a rescue device for the victim) is attached to the end of the cable or rope. The pilot flies the helicopter to a point at which the rescuer can snag the victim or where the victim can climb into the rescue device. Then the pilot ferries the rescuer and victim (dangling beneath the copter) to a safe location, where the rescuer/victim can be lowered to the ground.

Of critical importance during the short- haul evolution is the pilot’s ability to maintain sufficient altitude to avoid dragging the rescuer/victim through treetops or striking other objects. It generally takes a certain amount of experience and training and excellent depth perception to maintain a safe margin. It is exceptionally difficult for the pilot to ensure adequate clearance when poor weather and darkness reduce visibility and depth perception or when wind and rain are buffeting the copter. In some cases, a crew member is assigned to provide a second set of eyes to observe the rescuer/victim at the end of the rope and to communicate with the pilot (by “hot microphone”) to ensure adequate clearance over obstacles. At night or in poor weather, the crew member’s depth perception may be impaired, making short hauls particularly hazardous if there are numerous obstacles.

Another safety issue is related to the electrically operated hooks sometimes used to anchor the short-haul line to the copter. Originally, the hooks were intended for use in hauling equipment and other dead loads beneath helicopters. In the cockpit, the pilot has a button or switch that immediately opens the hook to drop the load. This mechanism is used in cases where the load is dragging the copter down or when a mechanical failure or other condition is threatening to bring the copter down. The pilot can instantly “punch out” the load, unweighting the helicopter and (hopefully) giving him enough time and altitude to autorotate or to put the copter down in a suitable place.

In recent years, cargo hooks have been used to anchor short-haul lines for rescue operations. Unfortunately, these hooks sometimes actuate and drop the load (which, in this case, may be the rescuer or the victim) while in flight, as a result of mechanical failure or human error. Some double-fault mechanisms have been developed to prevent accidental actuation of cargo hooks, but from time to time reports still surface of instances in which loads have been dropped as a result of malfunction or human error.

Even belly bands are not infallible: There is always the potential for damage to the band, or the bands may prevent the cabin doors from being closed completely.

These limitations notwithstanding, short hauls have proven to be very effective over the history of helicopter rescue. Many agencies around the world use short hauls to extract victims from various nonswiftwater entrapment situations with much success. So when performed accurately by well-trained crews under acceptable conditions, short hauls are a viable option.

(10) Standard personal protective equipment for helo swiftwater operations. This USAR company fire captain is wearing a full body rescue harness over his dry suit and beneath the personal flotation device.


Certain conditions can make it more difficult for the pilot to ensure adequate clearance, especially when poor weather and darkness reduce visibility and depth perception or when wind and rain are violently buffeting the craft. A crew member is usually assigned the job of acting as a second set of eyes to observe the rescuer/victim at the end of the rope and to communicate with the pilot to ensure adequate clearance over obstacles. At night or in poor weather, even with night vision goggles, the crew member’s depth perception may be impaired, adding to the potential dangers of short-haul rescues.

The committee knew these challenges would have to be overcome to successfully implement the new mandate. To ensure as such, helo swiftwater rescue committee members and other personnel assigned to the USAR company and Air Operations volunteered to help test the new methods by taking turns as mock victims in a fast-flowing river in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles and in flood-control channels during rainstorms while other firefighters attempted to rescue them while dangling from short-haul ropes attached to Bell 205 and 412 helicopters. It was dangerous duty because some of the methods and equipment were still being developed and because the swiftwater conditions were real: One wrong move or an unexpected complication could have lethal consequences. Pilot Rick Cearley improved on the timeliness of helo swiftwater rescue operations by developing new rescue tools that he built in his own garage—a rescue strap and a cinch harness that allow rescuers to quickly “capture” victims.

As the project gained momentum and new methods were successful in testing, it became evident that it was possible to rescue victims from fast-moving water with helicopters with a high degree of accuracy and reliability. The committee then moved on to more ambitious attempts, which helped confirm the validity of the notion that helo swiftwater rescue operations could be conducted safety, effectively, and quickly if the helicopter/rescue crews are properly equipped and trained and if they co-opt certain principles from ground-based swiftwater rescue operations. One of the methods developed by the group, an evolution known as “tethered rescuer, dynamic rescue,” is a good example of adherence to this principle.

A specially equipped rescuer (wearing a wet suit or dry suit, a rescue harness and a properly sized connection strap beneath a personal flotation device, a swiftwater rescue helmet, a Cearley rescue strap, and proper footwear and eye protection) is lowered from a rope attached to a helicopter, with the air crew person using a brake bar rack anchored into the cabin of the copter by a three-point load-sharing system. The rescuer is lowered much like a cliff rescue operation, only this time he’s suspended about 30 feet (or more, depending on the terrain) beneath the copter, and the brake bar is locked off. The pilot flies the helicopter to a strategic point downstream of the victim. He hovers in a position where he can see the victim approaching in the current, with the rescuer hanging just above the surface of the water. The crew person stands on the landing skid (connected to the helicopter by a special strap) and uses a “hot mic” to verbally guide the pilot to exactly the right position over the channel. Just before the victim reaches the rescuer’s location, the copter descends slightly until the rescuer is immersed in the water. The rescuer quickly snags the victim (a difficult maneuver in water that may only be two feet deep and moving more than 30 miles per hour); gains control of him; and quickly applies the Cearley strap, which allows the rescuer to capture the victim and secure him to the rope. All the while, the copter follows overhead, moving downstream, matching the speed of the rescuer and victim. Once the Cearley strap is applied and connected to the rope, the rescuer signals that he is ready and the pilot slowly ascends, lifting rescuer and victim from the water. The copter then moves laterally to the shore, gently depositing the victim and rescuer. The rescuer may disconnect the victim and return to the water to attempt to rescue additional victims. This is a sort of “fixed line flyaway” performed in the water.

In a variation of this evolution, a rescuer enters the water independently, contacts and connects the victim to his own rescue harness, and then floats with the victim as the helicopter flies overhead. A crew member on the skid lowers a fixed rescue rope to the rescuer in the water as the pilot matches the water speed. The rescuer connects himself and the victim to the line with a large locking carabiner. The pilot then lifts them out of the water and sets them down on shore.

After months of intense research, development, and testing, the new helo swiftwater rescue evolutions were unveiled by the group in the summer of 1992. These methods use a combination of short haul and swiftwater evolutions that may be used in practically any flood and swiftwater rescue emergency (so long as weather and lighting conditions allow the helicopter to operate). Although relatively high risk in nature, these methods proved extremely effective in extracting victims from fast-moving water. Soon, pilots and firefighters assigned to the Air Operations, USAR, and airborne swiftwater teams were being trained in the new methods, and they continue to this day. Annual recertification is required of all members assigned to these units, and the maneuvers are practiced often in a fast-moving aqueduct that resembles a flood-control channel.

Dynamic Swimmer Free Evolution. The rescue swimmer enters the water independently of the helicopter. After he makes contact and secures the victim using a Cearley strap, the helicopter (which has been tracking the rescuer) lowers the short- haul rope. The rescuer clips himself and the victim into the rope, and the copter (still matching their speed in the current) lifts them from the water and deposits them on shore.

Dynamic Tethered Rescuer Evolution. The rescuer is lowered from the copter on the short-haul line. When he is dangling about 30 feet below the copter, the crew member locks the rope off at the anchor. The pilot, guided by the crew member, matches the speed of the victim and lowers the rescuer into the water. The rescuer contacts the victim, wraps a Cearley strap around him, and signals to be raised. The copter, matching the water’s speed, lifts the rescuer and victim to the shore.

Static Swimmer Free Evolution. The rescue swimmer makes his way to a victim stranded on a stationary object or in a pond or lake (no current). He attaches a Cearley strap to the victim and signals for the copter. The copter hovers overhead, and the crew member lowers the short-haul rope. The rescuer connects himself and the victim to the rope, and both are short-hauled to safety.

Static Tethered Rescuer Evolution. The rescuer is lowered from the copter on the short haul rope to a victim stranded on a stationary object or in a pond or lake (no current). The rescuer places a Cearley strap on the victim, attaches the victim to the rope, and signals to be lifted to safety.

Cinch Harness Rescue Evolution. The Cearley cinch harness, a victim-capturing device designed for static and dynamic helicopter rescues (not restricted to swiftwater rescue), is lowered from the copter at the end of the short-haul line to a victim. The victim places the cinch harness over his head and slips it below his armpits. The crew member, standing on the skid, “jerks” the rope to dislodge the hook and loop fastener on the cinch harness, which allows the harness to cinch up on the victim. The crew member, talking on a “hot mic,” instructs the pilot to raise the victim from the water. The victim is short-hauled to shore (or to a boat). In some cases, a rescuer may be lowered on the same rope so he can place the victim in the cinch harness. This may be necessary if the victim is injured, is unconscious, or is a child.

(11) Example of a tether attached to the rescuer’s harness, which will eventually be his connection to the short-haul rope by the carabiner.


(12) USAR company firefighter preparing to enter the water to capture a victim being swept past and then to be plucked from the water using the dynamic swimmer free method.


These methods have been successfully used in actual and simulated rescues literally thousands of times. For example, on a single day in February 1993, four people were saved from floods by LACoFD helicopter-based swiftwater teams using the adapted short-haul/swiftwater methods. One of those recovered was a two-year-old baby who was trapped underwater between a rock and a tree after he was separated from his father by floodwaters in an icy creek. Three other people were rescued from a rock in the middle of a Malibu flood after a hoist motor overheated after multiple rescues in static swiftwater conditions; the LACoFD helo swiftwater rescue team used the static tethered rescuer method to extract them.

For an incident commander, the availability of proven helo swiftwater rescue capabilities is an important tool, one that may even be used to rescue one of his own firefighters in trouble during an emergency. Such an event occurred in the winter of 1998, when two LACoFD firefighters became trapped by fast-rising floodwaters on an island while attempting to rescue five children who had been swept miles downstream by a flash flood. An LACoFD helicopter was diverted from the search for the original victims to pluck the firefighters from the island using the cinch harness rescue evolution.

Other agencies across southern California have developed variations of these evolutions. Some agencies insist on using the helicopter hoist instead of the short-haul rope system, in violation of hoist manufacturer recommendations. It is the position of these agencies that the extra degree of control afforded the crew person, who can manipulate the hoist using a hand-held controller, outweighs the danger of catastrophic hoist or wire rope failure.

We in the LACoFD disagree with the use of hoists in this situation because of the potential danger to rescuers and victims. Only time will tell which approach is safer, but suffice it to say that there are no nationally recognized standards or guidelines to deter the use of the hoist cable for dynamic swiftwater rescue application. This is an example of the need for a national consensus on the basic safety protocols to consider before a catastrophic failure forces it on the fire/rescue services.


During the 1993 storms alone, firefighters and lifeguards from LACoFD (including helicopter-based swiftwater rescue teams) rescued at least 111 citizens during the course of 51 swiftwater rescue operations.

The year 1995 also had heavy flood rescue activity. At least 30 people were rescued by helicopter using the new methods.

On January 4, 1995, helicopter and ground-based rescuers from the Los Angeles County and City Fire Departments and lifeguards, together with the Torrance Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Department, rescued 200 people from fast-rising water when flood- control channels in Carson overflowed into surrounding neighborhoods, quickly flooding homes and automobiles. A dozen of these victims were rescued by helicopter-based swiftwater teams.

On January 10, 1995, LACoFD firefighters and lifeguards used boats, ropes, contact rescue techniques, and helicopters to rescue 35 people in the Malibu area. At least a dozen people were plucked to safety by LACoFD helicopter-based rescue teams using the new helo swiftwater rescue methods.

February 23, 1998, was notable for the concentration of rescues that occurred in one 24-hour period. The LACoFD alone responded to 35 swiftwater rescues. A helo swiftwater rescue team assigned to the inland desert area of Los Angeles County rescued at least nine people during 18 swiftwater incidents (with support from first responders, USAR units, and ground-based swiftwater rescue teams). There were so many swiftwater rescue missions that the crew members began taking turns performing the rescues from different operational positions to reduce the potential for rescuer hypothermia and fatigue.

The value of the new helo-swiftwater evolutions was also evident on February 8, 1998, when dozens of swiftwater rescue incidents occurred. One helicopter-based swiftwater team saved four victims stranded during two separate nighttime swiftwater rescue incidents under extremely dangerous conditions that resulted in medal of valor nominations.

Another notable incident occurred when a driving rainstorm pushed the rugged and deadly Santa Clara River to flood stage. In a remote and mountainous area of L.A. County’s Soledad Canyon, a citizen became trapped atop his car while attempting to traverse an Arizona crossing. LACoFD Engine 80 arrived to find the man clinging to the roof of his car, which was periodically being nudged farther downstream by debris and the force of the water. Flood surges pushed the water over the roof of the vehicle several times and threatened to wash the car downstream, into an area that was tangled with natural strainers in the forms of trees, chaparral, and other debris. Ground-based units established downstream safety and other precautions. Then a helicopter rescue was attempted.

Because of the darkness, electrical transmission lines, storm conditions, and the rugged terrain of the rescue site, flying into Soledad Canyon in itself was a daring proposition. The crew sized up the situation and saw the victim was trapped in a static swiftwater situation. They agreed that a modified hoist rescue would be most appropriate to handle the rescue, because this would allow the victim and rescuer to be raised directly back to the cabin of the copter.

While the copter hovered over the car, a firefighter stood on the copter’s skid and controlled the hoist cable while another rescuer was placed directly on the roof of the car, next to the victim, without knocking the man into the water. The rescuer secured the victim in a cinch harness. Both victim and rescuer were then raised back into the copter.

Then the copter was requested to respond to another swiftwater rescue, this time in the mountains near the Los Padres National Forest. Arriving first on the scene, crew members found a truck on its side in the middle of the raging creek, with three victims barely clinging to the side of the vehicle. The truck had rolled over in the current when the men tried to traverse an Arizona crossing and was now in danger of being swept into a deep canyon from which rescue would have been nearly impossible that night. There was no time to wait for the normal level of ground support, so the copter went to work.

The crew agreed that the hoist could be used to place a rescuer on the side of the truck, keeping him out of the water. Then he could work to extract the victims one at a time.

The copter hovered in darkness and driving rain as the rescuer was lowered to the victims. During the course of securing the victims, the rescuer was forced to cling to the only exposed portions of the truck while working to free the victims. He managed to secure one victim at a time, and they were delivered one by one to the safety of the shoreline. This operation required pinpoint control with the hoist cable system to place the rescuer exactly where he needed to be without knocking victims into the water.

The helo swiftwater rescue methods and equipment discussed here have been instrumental in improving the way helicopters are used for water rescue and have saved many victims who might otherwise have perished. As time goes on, new innovations will continue to be developed, researched, tested, and shared. The wider application of these methods is likely to result in similar success rates and more lives saved. n

LARRY COLLINS has been a member of the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD) for 23 years. He is a captain; USAR specialist; and paramedic assigned to USAR Task Force 103, a unit trained and equipped to conduct helicopter swiftwater rescue operations. He has had various helicopter-related assignments since 1984 as a firefighter/paramedic and a USAR company captain, including helicopter-based mountain rescue, swiftwater and marine rescue operations, post-earthquake aerial damage assessment and rescue, and urban rescue operations. He is a search team manager for the LACoFD’s FEMA USAID/OFDA Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force and a USAR specialist on the “Red” FEMA USAR Incident Support Team. He is an instructor at FDIC and FDIC West and the author of the upcoming book Rescue: A Guide to Urban Search and Technical Rescue (Fire Engineering).

Case Study 1: Rubio Creek Rescue

One of the most dramatic examples of the need for advanced helicopter-based swiftwater rescue capabilities came during the rescue of two children in a flood-control channel in Los Angeles County known as Rubio Creek during the El Nino storms of 1992. This incident, coming within days of unsuccessful helicopter-based swiftwater rescue attempts by several Southern California fire departments and several high-profile swiftwater incidents resulting in fatalities, was the catalyst for the County of Los Angeles Fire Department (LACoFD) to develop and implement the pioneering helo swiftwater evolutions described in this article.

On the day of the Rubio Creek incident, the sun was shining in the lower elevations of the Los Angeles Basin, but it was raining hard in the 11,000-foot-high San Gabriel Mountains, creating flash flood conditions. Several 9-1-1 calls reported that two children, a boy and a girl, playing in the water had just been swept away by a flood surge. The LACoFD dispatched a first- alarm water rescue assignment, and nearly a dozen units (including two helicopters) responded downstream to preassigned rescue points specified in the Waterway Rescue Preplan for Rubio Creek.

The first victim to be spotted, the teenage girl, was rescued three miles downstream by LACoFD rescuers, who used shore-based first responder methods (including throw bags and a tensioned diagonal line) to pluck the victim from the current near a freeway overpass. She suffered a fractured femur and hypothermia but survived after being airlifted to a trauma center by an LACoFD fire/rescue helicopter.

The second victim, an 11-year old boy, was tracked by numerous ground-based fire units that attempted shore-based rescues to no avail. LACoFD Copter 17 (a Bell 412 fire/rescue helicopter staffed that day with a pilot and two USAR and swiftwater-trained firefighter/paramedics) arrived on the scene, spotted the victim, and flew far enough downstream to set up for a rescue attempt.

Since no formal swiftwater helo procedures had been established at the time, and since the firefighters lacked special equipment with which to quickly and securely “snag” the victim, the crew was basically doing the best it could under trying conditions in a last-ditch effort to save the boy.

As the boy approached a steep 20-foot-high dropoff where narrow Rubio Creek converges with the 400-foot-wide Rio Hondo River, a place where the helicopter crew figured it would have to make a last-ditch attempt to rescue him, Firefighter/Paramedic Rudy Mariscol was lowered on the hoist cable and dangled under the copter, his feet just touching the water. The copter remained in place (Mariscol was stationary—not moving downstream with the current). Unfortunately, his stationary position ensured a collision between victim and rescuer. Pilot Karl Cotton, a veteran of hundreds of helicopter rescues, lowered the helicopter to dip Mariscol into the water just before the victim was swept past. He positioned Mariscol immediately downstream of the boy. Mariscol was able to grasp the boy for an instant, but the current had slammed them together, and Mariscol was unable to get a good hold on the victim. As Cotton lifted high into the air (with Mariscol dangling on the hoist cable) to clear a freeway overpass and reposition the helicopter for yet another attempt farther downstream on the Rio Hondo, the boy was swept over “the falls” and continued to be swept farther downstream.

The copter set up for another possible rescue attempt just downstream of the next rescue point, where several engines and truck companies had established a tension-diagonal rope system and were waiting with throw bags and other shore-based rescue equipment. The plan that Cotton had quickly devised with the incident commander was to make another attempt with the helicopter if the victim went past the rescue point. As the boy emerged from beneath the freeway under which the Rio Hondo flowed, he was swept into the tension-diagonal line that had been tensioned right above the water’s surface, according to the plan. The diagonal rope system combined with the water’s downstream force to propel the boy toward shore, where he was grabbed by firefighters and police officers who entered the water from the shore to successfully complete the rescue. The boy was rescued, and all personnel safely exited the water.

Case Study 2: Rescues in Heavy Rainstorm

The helo swiftwater rescue methods developed by the LACoFD would be tested twice on the same day when a heavy rainstorm slammed into Los Angeles in March 1993, causing more than a dozen swiftwater rescue incidents. I was assigned to a helicopter-based swiftwater team that was predeployed in the mountainous northwestern part of Los Angeles County that day. On the second or third swiftwater rescue response, we were dispatched to extract a victim from the water.

A couple with a baby had become stranded in a picnic area on the wrong side of a stream, and with the water continuing to rise and darkness coming, they figured now was their only chance to avoid spending the night out in the open in a storm. The father placed the baby on his shoulders and led the way. As the water rose above his waist, the man stepped into a hole, lost his footing, and was swept beneath the water. In an instant the boy was gone, swept into a rugged canyon that was inaccessible to ground vehicles except in a few points where a major mountain road passed close by. The mother was somehow able to get across the creek, and she went for help while the father began scrambling downstream in a panic to look for his missing son. The baby boy was swept from atop his father’s shoulders as the man and his wife attempted to wade across a flooded mountain creek. He didn’t survive.

The 9-1-1 call was transferred to the LACoFD, which dispatched a standard first alarm “Water Rescue” response that consisted of five engine companies, one truck company, one ground-based paramedic squad, one battalion chief, the closest USAR company, the closest ground-based swiftwater rescue team, and two fire/rescue helicopters (each staffed with helicopter-based swiftwater rescue teams for this storm). The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department also notified dispatch units, including the closest volunteer mountain search and rescue team (as per written memorandum of understanding between the LACoFD and the Sheriff’s Department).

The baby was missing somewhere in a two-mile stretch of a rugged, cliff-lined stream flowing through the mountains to the upper end of Lake Castaic. Flying directly to the scene in a Bell 412 helicopter, we arrived in the area at virtually the same time that first-due Engine 149 got to the road that crossed the creek to the picnic area.

Engine 149 gave a size-up report to the Fire Command and Control Facility (FCCF); assigned me as search group leader; directed us to follow the stream toward the lake, where the baby’s father had been heading; and established itself as the command post at the river crossing.

We acknowledged our assignment on the radio, and Pilot Rick Cearley began downstream through the steep canyon, following the twisting stream that was brimming with whitewater from the rain draining out of the steep mountains behind us. Both cabin doors were open, with air crew and swiftwater rescue team members standing on the skids (connected to anchor points in the cabin through the use of pickoff straps carabinered to their rescue harnesses) scanning the stream for some sign of the victim or his father.

The rain had let up some and was basically a hard sprinkle that allowed fairly good visibility below the low-hanging clouds. After a couple of minutes, we spotted the father, who was flagging us down from a sandbar where the creek drained into Lake Castaic. Cearley landed the copter on a sandy shoal and kept the blades turning while I exited the copter to talk with the distraught man. Meanwhile, the others readied their equipment and PPE for a potential swiftwater/helo rescue operation.

“My baby’s in the stream, up there!” exclaimed the man, pointing upstream into the steep canyon.

I asked the man what happened, where he last saw the baby, when the accident happened (about 25 minutes ago), and what the baby was wearing (a white jumper). I instructed him to remain where he was, that another helicopter (from the Sheriff’s Department) would soon land to get more information from him and to reunite him with his wife. Normally, we might take the father, as one of only two eyewitnesses, with us to point out exactly where he lost his son. However, because of weight and room considerations, and because we already had confirmed the point last seen, we determined that it was better to leave the man on the ground for now and proceed with a thorough aerial search.

At this point, with half an hour gone by since the mishap, the baby’s best chance was for one of the helicopter-based swiftwater teams to quickly spot him, extract him, and fly him directly to the closest trauma center capable of dealing with pediatric patients or directly to the closest receiving hospital if the baby was found in full arrest. The next best chance was for a ground-based team to locate and extract the baby and to transfer him to the closest copter for a direct flight to the hospital.

As we lifted off, I radioed incident command with the following information: a brief explanation of the status of the victim as we knew it; a request for one additional ground-based swiftwater rescue team to help search the stream; a request for the closest Sheriff’s Department helicopter—preferably with forward-looking infrared, or FLIR—to be dispatched (to locate the father and remove him to a safe zone while gathering additional information that would assist us with the search); a request for the firefighters and engineer from Engine 149 to begin searching the shoreline; and that we were going to mount an airborne search until the other units arrived.

As Cearley began flying a search pattern up the canyon, the two firefighter/paramedic air crew members aboard the copter scanned the river beneath cloud-shrouded mountainsides. We know from years of experience that it’s often possible to spot submerged victims from the air, even when shore-based and boat-based personnel can’t see them, so that was part of our search strategy—to detect that one telltale sign of the baby beneath the surface of the water, which might lead to a rescue. My partner and I were already in our drysuits, PFDs, rescue harnesses, and other PPE, and we were setting up to conduct a “tethered rescuer” evolution if the baby was spotted. In this case, based purely on a regular rotation of duties, I was designated as the primary rescuer, with my partner as the backup rescuer.

The plan was to lower the primary rescuer (me) from the cabin of the copter on a single-line rope system, much like being lowered over a cliff. An air crew member would control the brake bar rack that was our friction/lowering device for this evolution. The idea of this evolution was to “dip” the primary rescuer into the water, allowing him to grab the victim with a Cearley rescue strap (designed by our pilot). If any problems developed, the backup rescuer (my partner) could be deployed by the hoist cable or another rope system (or through the use of a “one-skid” or a hover-step). But for now there was no sign of the baby. The search was on in earnest now; we were soon assisted by the ground units.

As we passed Engine 149, located just upstream from the point last seen, at a well-known road crossing, Cearley turned the copter around, and we began a downstream search.

Within minutes, the second LACoFD helicopter arrived (also staffed with a helicopter- based swiftwater rescue team) to help with the search. We were soon joined by the Sheriff’s Department patrol helicopter, which had airlifted the boy’s father to the command post. Over the aviation frequencies, the pilots coordinated their movements to establish a “round-robin” system whereby they would follow each other in a search from upstream to downstream, maintaining sufficient air space between them.

As each downstream-moving copter reached the lake, it would peel off to “river left.” Since the “river right” side of the stream was bordered by a 400-foot-high cliff, peeling off to “river left” was the only viable option. Each copter would make its way back to the upstream boundary of the search area (the point where the father and baby were separated during the crossing attempt) and then begin working its way downstream again. We would continue this until someone found the baby or until it became necessary to break off to refuel and then return and continue as necessary.

By this time, firefighters from the engine and truck companies (equipped with sneakers, PFDs, and other PPE) were physically searching the shorelines and the eddies and pools using pike poles as sounding/reaching tools, chain saws to cut off offending branches, and shovels as scooping tools. Firefighters from the ground-based LACoFD swiftwater rescue teams were entering the stream to physically search every eddy, hydraulic, and strainer for the baby.

The search was nearing the first hour, and it seemed like the race against time was being lost. With the water temperature hovering in the 40s, the baby would have a chance of “cold water drowning” resuscitation if he could be found soon. In the helicopters, we were becoming increasingly frustrated by our inability to spot the baby. We could see through the water to the creek bottom in many places. However, heavy vegetation overhung much of the creek’s shoreline, making it difficult to see anything—including a baby’s body—in the current.

The other fire copter crew reported that they were having some luck by bringing the copter down to a closer hover over the water, which had the effect of “pushing” back the water and vegetation (in effect, “parting the water”).

Suddenly the other LACoFD helicopter radioed that it had spotted something in the water. As it stopped and hovered over the spot where a crew member standing on the skid had seen a flash of white in the water, Cearley moved our copter into position and hovered. We got ready to go into the water. Wearing a PFD, drysuit, goggles, and swiftwater rescue helmet, I was already connected to the rope by my rescue harness. After confirming that we were directly over the spot, I was lowered off the skid and into the water.

I put my face into the water and groped around until I felt the baby’s body. He was wedged between a rock and a tree. With just a little effort I was able to free the baby; immediately, I surfaced with the child in my arms. The baby’s head showed signs of trauma from being swept nearly a mile downstream, and he was blue from hypoxia and cold. We had agreed before I left the copter that this was going to be treated as a “cold water near drowning” and worked as a “full code,” even though the baby had been submerged more than an hour.

I tucked the injured baby in one arm. With the other arm, I signaled that I was ready to be raised from the water. I quickly placed the Cearley Strap around the baby’s chest and cinched it, clipping the strap to the figure eight on a bight at the end of the rope on which I had been lowered into the stream (my rescue harness was carabinered into the same bight, which is standard for the tethered rescuer evolution).

I came out of the water and was suspended in midair as Cearley lifted the copter higher above the creek and slowly started moving up-canyon. He was cognizant of the need to prevent “the load” (me and the baby) from beginning to pendulum below the copter, and his expert touch and control were evident as we gradually accelerated.

A crew member stood above me on the skid, harnessed and connected to the anchor points in the cabin with a pickoff strap. He alternately looked forward for obstacles and then down to ensure I was clearing the treetops and rocky outcroppings with sufficient space between me and the objects. Meanwhile, I was performing CPR on the baby, trying not to look at the terrain passing far below. By now, we were spinning very slowly below the copter. It was a slow, comfortable turning, typical of the wind and flight conditions.

I continued concentrating on CPR, keeping the baby’s airway open, hoping that somehow we’d found him in time to make a difference. The pilot started a slow descent.

In moments we were scudding over the lake, the firefighter/paramedic in the cockpit radioing the hospital to announce our imminent arrival so a team of personnel would be waiting in the emergency room. Some six or eight minutes later, Cearley was setting the copter down and Fullove was sliding open the cabin door. He helped me out of the copter, and we handed off the baby to the emergency room staff, who continued to furiously work on the baby.

Tragically, the baby did not survive the ordeal. His death was attributed to a combination of head trauma and drowning.

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