Water Rescue Using Boats and Aerials

(1) Crimson Fire's 100-foot midmount aerial platform depresses to minus 10 degrees, allowing the platform to get 15 to 20 feet below grade, setting the stage for a water rescue.
(1) Crimson Fire's 100-foot midmount aerial platform depresses to minus 10 degrees, allowing the platform to get 15 to 20 feet below grade, setting the stage for a water rescue. (Photo courtesy of Crimson Fire.)
(2) Pierce Manufacturing's 100-foot rear-mount aerial ladder is used by this fire department to effect a water rescue.
(2) Pierce Manufacturing's 100-foot rear-mount aerial ladder is used by this fire department to effect a water rescue. (Photo courtesy of Pierce Manufacturing.)
(3) Rosenbauer's Cobra series platforms and Viper aerial ladders can depress to a negative 12 degrees below grade. Its T-Rex telescoping and articulating arm aerial platform, shown here with the Dubuque (IA) Fire Department, can work 18 feet below grade, making it useful for water rescue.
(3) Rosenbauer's Cobra series platforms and Viper aerial ladders can depress to a negative 12 degrees below grade. Its T-Rex telescoping and articulating arm aerial platform, shown here with the Dubuque (IA) Fire Department, can work 18 feet below grade, making it useful for water rescue. (Photo courtesy of Rosenbauer.)
(4) Harbor Guard Boats makes rescue boats in various lengths that can be equipped with rescue platforms on the port and starboard sides.
(4) Harbor Guard Boats makes rescue boats in various lengths that can be equipped with rescue platforms on the port and starboard sides. (Photo courtesy of Harbor Guard Boats.)
(5) Personnel use a Harbor Guard Boat equipped with a rescue platform to pull two people from the water after two boats collided near the Intercoastal Waterway.
(5) Personnel use a Harbor Guard Boat equipped with a rescue platform to pull two people from the water after two boats collided near the Intercoastal Waterway. (Photo courtesy of Harbor Guard Boats.)

Depending on the body of water-lake, river, canal, or drainage channel-boats, aerials, or a combination of the two may be used by fire departments to make a water rescue. Across the country, firefighters are using every kind of aerial device made-platforms, straight ladders, and articulated boom aerials-to pluck people from water.

On the rescue boat and fire boat front, manufacturers have developed specialized craft that make water rescue easier and simpler for rescue personnel assigned the task through the use of rescue platforms on the boats' sides or an open transom design at the rear.

Aerials for Rescue

Tim Smits, senior manager for national sales and product support for Pierce Manufacturing Inc., says any of Pierce's aerial devices lend themselves well to water rescue, although some departments prefer to use platforms or articulating aerials instead of straight ladders. "The big thing about using an aerial for a water rescue is it's a below-grade operation, which is an especially important part in river rescues," Smits says. "Our 100-foot aluminum aerial platform can go to minus 11 degrees, and even our other aluminum aerials and our steel ladders can go to eight degrees below grade."

Smits says that any aerial 75 feet or longer could prove useful in water rescues but that longer ladders have greater horizontal reach, which makes them more effective if they can be positioned close to a river bank or shore line.

Two of the main issues fire departments have to consider when using an aerial device for a water rescue, Smits points out, are how fast the water is traveling and the weight of the person in the water. "You don't want to overload the aerial's tip, so you have to think about that 250-pound person who may now be soaking wet, as well as the force of the water," he says.

With a 750-pound tip load, Smits adds, two firefighters can be out on the platform to make a rescue, but with a 500-pound tip load only a single firefighter would be out there to pluck the victim from the water. "That's where the higher payload capacity aerials lend themselves better to water rescues," he says. "Also, platforms are better because the firefighters can pull the victim onto the platform, which is more secure than a ladder."

Besides tip loading and water current velocity, Smits says firefighters performing a water rescue have to be aware of flowing objects in the current. "Something heavy slamming into a ladder or platform could damage it or injure those on the device," he says, noting that Pierce makes a Lyfe bracket that pins to the front of its aerial platforms, allowing three functions.

First, the bracket has rappelling eyes that can lift a tied-off basket with a victim. Second, it can mount a stokes basket for recovery from the scene. Third, a roof ladder can be attached to the bracket and be lowered to reach a victim below grade.

Another Pierce product, the Bronto Skylift, lends itself well to water rescue, Smits points out, especially if the rescue is conducted from a bridge. "The Bronto can articulate over the bridge's handrail and go right down to the water line," Smits says. "It works well in western states where they have huge concrete drainage ditches."

The Bronto Skylift is made in 110-, 116-, 138-, and 168-foot versions, each with a 16-foot articulating arm.

Platform vs. Ladder for Rescue

Jim Salmi, chief operating officer of Crimson Fire, says while aerials are only used occasionally for water rescues, there are applications where platforms or ladders can be perched at the edge of a road on a river and extended out to someone stuck on an object or coming downstream. "Ladders are not really designed to pluck people from water, although they have been used successfully to do so," Salmi says. "Platforms are stronger and provide a bigger working platform, which makes it a bigger target area." Crimson Fire makes aerial platforms in 75-, 93-, and 100-foot rear-mount and midmount versions.

Salmi agrees that the ability of an aerial to go below grade is essential to its use in water rescue. "Many of Crimson's platforms and ladders go to minus 10 degrees," he says, "which would get you to 15 to 20 feet below grade. And, with a platform of a typical 1,000-pound capacity, you could have two firefighters in there and still have the capacity for another two persons. That capacity is when the aerial is fully extended and fully depressed, which means the aerial is capable of doing a fair amount of work."

Salmi notes that sometimes it's not possible to get to the water with a boat and you have to use an aerial. "The big concern when working in a water rescue situation, especially in a fast current, is that it can put significant side forces on a ladder, especially when trying to drag someone out of the water," he says. "A platform can pretty much handle what you might encounter, but a ladder might slip a bit in such a condition."

Salmi adds that lighting at the tip of an aerial device is an important consideration in water rescues. "Especially at night, you need good lighting at the tip to spot people and objects in the water and position the apparatus appropriately," he says.

Different Platform Gear Choices

Rosenbauer makes the Cobra series of platform aerials in 75-, 85-, 88-, 100-, 101-, and 104-foot lengths. Its Viper aerial ladder series is made in 60-, 65-, 75-, 78-, 100-, 109-, and 125-foot lengths. Mike Harstad, aerial product manager for Rosenbauer, says all of Rosenbauer's platforms can depress to a negative 12 degrees, making them good candidates for below grade rescue work. He notes the Cobras have envelope control and a short jacking system that allows operation over the short jack side of the truck. For example, the company recently supplied a 100-foot midmount aerial platform to the Nampa (ID) Fire Department and helped the department develop standard operating procedures for below grade rescues. The city of Nampa, located near Boise, has a number of concrete drainage channels that fill with swiftly flowing water during and after rainstorms.

Fire departments are asking Rosenbauer for different types of gear on platforms, Harstad notes. "They've always had storage boxes on the side of the platform for extra self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs), hose, or high-rise packs," he says, "but recently we've seen some specs for dividers to store ropes, safety vests, and life jackets out on the platform itself."

Caution Is Critical

Joe Hedges, product manager of aerials and chassis for E-ONE, says that fire departments often use other methods besides an aerial to get someone out of water. But when faced with using an aerial for a water rescue, they should use extreme caution and observe the limits on tip loads and stability. "In static water, there's a lot more predictable load on the aerial than in moving water," Hedges says. "Rescue operations have to take into account how much a person weighs, that the victim might be soaking wet, and whether the victim is wearing a wool coat or something lightweight."

Hedges notes that with E-ONE's 2:1 structural and 1.5:1 stability factors, its aerial platforms are designed for both side and static loads. "If a platform is supposed to hold 1,000 pounds, we have to plan for it to hold 2,000 pounds," he says. Still, moving water rescues are "horribly unpredictable and represent an unknown load case," Hedges points out. "The weight of the person, the resistance to drag coming down the river, the water velocity, and what other object or person may cling onto the person being rescued are some of the unknowns."

Hedges suggests that departments using aerial devices for water rescues not operate the aerial at full extension if they don't have to because aerials are stronger if not fully extended. He also recommends reducing the loading on the aerial by pointing it up into the current so that anything that puts a drag on it causes the force to go down the aerial instead of becoming a sideways load.

Departments can get pretty creative, though, Hedges admits. "They can stick a 137-foot ladder out over the water with a flotation device attached to a rope to drop to an individual in the water and then pull them in with the rope," he says. Ultimately, his advice is simple. "Try to find another way other than sticking an aerial out into the water," he says.

Rescuing Via Boat

Using boats for water rescue is the more traditional route for many fire departments in cases where they can get the boat into the water and to the victim.

Tim Spooner, vice president of marketing for Harbor Guard Boats Inc., says his company makes the Defender and Firehawk lines of rescue boats in 20-, 24-, 26-, 30-, and 37-foot lengths. Each model can be equipped with waterline platform dive doors-eight-foot-long platforms that are part of the gunwale walls and hooked to electric winches so they can be lowered to the water line. The platforms are three feet wide on smaller boats and 4½ feet wide on the larger models. "The doors can be lowered in heavier seas where the door is below the waterline," Spooner says. "It allows rescuers to get people out of the water and into the boat faster and easier than hauling them over a gunwale."

The waterline platforms are available on both Harbor Guard's propeller and jet-drive models. On its twin jet-drive boats, a rear waterline dive platform also can be fitted.

Gregory Serio, chief of the Verdoy Fire Department, in Latham, New York, says his department has used a Harbor Guard with dual rescue platforms since 2005 for water rescue and fire suppression work on a several mile stretch of the Mohawk River. "With the rescue platforms deployed, it makes it easy to pick up victims from the water by sliding them into the boat on a floating stokes basket," Serio says.

Verdoy's Fire Boat 11 is a Firehawk 24 powered by a Mercury Mercruiser V8 8.1-liter, 420-horsepower (hp) gasoline engine that drives dual stainless steel propellers. It also carries a Mercury Marine 200-hp Optimax gas engine with a bronze Hale direct-mount through-the-hull fire pump and an Elkhart Quad Stack Tip monitor.

Verdoy also has a Sutphen 75-foot aerial quint that Serio says can be used in water rescues. "We haven't used it in a water rescue yet, but that was one of the considerations that went into buying a straight stick," he says. "The tip can get through brush and into tighter spaces than a platform."

Serio says the Mohawk River shoreline in his district has seen development of many large residential structures with limited road access, so Fire Boat 11 also is rigged to serve as a standing hydrant on the river, using the Elkhart monitor and a 2½-inch gated wye to supply two three-inch hoselines to the shore.

The nearby Troy (NY) Fire Department also purchased a Harbor Guard Firehawk for water rescue and fire suppression work on the Hudson River.

Doug Natoce, regional manager for Eastern U.S. and U.S. Navy for Brunswick Commercial and Government Products, says his company's rescue boat offerings include the Boston Whaler, Sentry Aluminum, and Impact RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) series.

Its Boston Whaler Guardian fire boats are made in 22-, 25-, and 27-foot versions and are available with underwater lighting and dive doors on the port, starboard, or both sides. The Guardian's dive doors are available in sizes from 32 to 60 inches long on the gunwale. "Typically we do a 40-inch dive door with dive handles around the outside of the boat for divers, making it easy to haul people aboard," Natoce says. "On those boats with jet drives, we can put a platform over the jets for recovery or as a working platform."

Natoce notes he's supplied 27-foot Guardians that have deployable life rafts around the sides of the boat for rescues near airports. "There's a lot of working space on those boats and even an electronic davit system that allows the rescuers to recover a stokes basket and swing it into the boat," he says.

Natoce notes that Boston Whaler recently married its three-liter inboard Mercury marine engine with a Darley 1200 LDS pump in a below-deck configuration, "to provide a fire pumping system that meets all marine standards and is intrinsically safe." He adds that Union County, New Jersey recently took delivery of five Brunswick fire-rescue boats with the Mercury-Darley system to cover five New Jersey cities, including Newark.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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