Equipment, Petrillo, Rescue Company

Swift Water Rescue Requires Specific Equipment Cache

Issue 2 and Volume 22.

By Alan M. Petrillo

When faced with a swift water rescue, fire departments break out specialized equipment to safely reach and rescue victims and employ tactics and techniques designed to provide overarching and redundant levels of safety for both victims and rescuers.

Throw bags

1 Rescue 3 International and Rescue Source make four types of throw bags for swift water rescue work.
1 Rescue 3 International and Rescue Source make four types of throw bags for swift water rescue work.

Mike Turnbull, chief executive officer of Rescue 3 International and the Rescue Source, says that throw bags are the primary tool used by fire departments, police, and sheriff’s organizations when making a swift water rescue. “It’s a bag holding 50 feet of rope or more that a rescuer throws to a victim in a swift water situation,” Turnbull says. “You hold onto one end of the rope and throw the bag to the victim. The bag has a float in its bottom so it floats, and we use a floating rope that stays on top of the water.”

Rescue Source makes four types of throw bags: Standard, Pro, Second Chance, and Mini. “The RQ3 Standard is our workhorse bag made of high-tech nylon fabric that’s tough, ultraviolet-resistant, and fast drying,” Turnbull says. “There’s a grab handle over the top for accurate and smooth bucket throws and a reverse taper for easy loading.” The Pro model sports a side pocket to store a carabiner and has reflective tape around the bag. The Second Chance adds a floating weight to the end of a 75-foot rope, while the Mini is small enough to carry in a personal flotation device (PFD) along with 50 feet of ¼-inch-diameter rope.”

2 Safety lines and tension lines are often rigged downstream, in case a victim or rescuer is washed down from the initial rescue site.
2 Safety lines and tension lines are often rigged downstream, in case a victim or rescuer is washed down from the initial rescue site.

Dive Rescue International makes throw bags that will hold between 65 and 100 feet of rope, says Justin Fox, Dive Rescue’s president and chief executive officer. “The throat of our bags has an expandable collar so there’s always enough room for rope in the bag,” he says. “We use 3⁄8-inch-diameter floating ropes made by PMI or BlueWater Rope that are a large enough size for a victim with cold hands to grab onto. All our bags have a foam float in the bottom that keeps them from sinking into the river.”

Alex Boughamer, inside salesman for rescue and government at NRS, says his company makes the NRS Pro Rescue Throw Bag of highly visible and durable Cordura®. “The throw bags have internal floatation to keep them on the surface and use floating rope to keep it on top of the water,” Boughamer says. “A polyethylene-sheathed grab loop makes it quick and easy to hook onto a carabiner, and a two-inch mesh panel allows for better drainage and reduced dry time.”

3 Typical swift water rescue operating procedures usually call for all rescuers to wear personal flotation devices and helmets. (Photos 1-3 courtesy of Rescue 3 International)
3 Typical swift water rescue operating procedures usually call for all rescuers to wear personal flotation devices and helmets. (Photos 1-3 courtesy of Rescue 3 International.)

Rope

Matt Hunt, work market manager for Sterling Rope, says the most popular rope Sterling sells for swift water rescue situations is its Waterline rope. “Waterline is a one-size-fits-all type rope that can be used for throw bags, as an ice rescue tether, and for swift water rescue,” Hunt points out. “It has a 3,400-pound breaking strength, is 3⁄8 inch in diameter, and floats on top of the water.” Sterling Rope also makes the Grabline for swift water rescue, a rope with a textured, bumpy sheath that is easier to grab in cold water.

For water rescue high lines and tension lines across a river, Sterling Rope makes Ultraline, Hunt says. “It’s a high-strength rope that uses a Spectra® core, so it’s not only much stronger than nylon or polyester, it’s also much lighter,” he notes. “It has a 5,200-pound breaking strength, and we’ve also seen it used in rafting rescues with a pulley system.” Sterling Rope also markets an equipment set for swift water rescues that includes locking carabiners, pulleys for a mechanical advantage to ferry a raft or boat back and forth across a river, and a rigging plate to attach to the anchors of the tension lines.

4 NRS makes a river board that can be used to allow a rescuer to be pulled to a victim or to haul a victim out of swift water. (Photo courtesy of Sierra Rescue)
4 NRS makes a river board that can be used to allow a rescuer to be pulled to a victim or to haul a victim out of swift water. (Photo courtesy of Sierra Rescue.)

Rescue Hardware

Turnbull notes that in a swift water rescue situation, personnel should be equipped with a PFD, whistle, knife, wet or dry suit, gloves, and booties while on-scene equipment should include throw bags, rescue boards, ropes, pulleys, carabiners, and extra PFDs and blankets for victims.

Don Enos, sales manager for SMC, says the number one component in swift water rescue equipment that SMC makes are the pulleys used in pulley systems. “These are used in mechanical advantage systems to extract a victim or pull a raft or boat,” Enos points out. “Second most used components are our carabiners.”

5 Swift water rescuers use a throw bag to reach a victim and haul him back to safety in this training exercise.
5 Swift water rescuers use a throw bag to reach a victim and haul him back to safety in this training exercise.

Enos says SMC makes the Swift Water pulley that’s designed to let water flow through and around it, creating only a minimal amount of drag. “The sideplates of the Swift Water pulley have holes in them to allow muddy and murky water to wash through it,” he observes.

Swift Water PPE

NRS also makes the Rapid Rescuer PFD that is a Type V personal flotation device available in chest sizes from 30 to 58 inches. Boughamer says the PFD is made with box-stitched stress points and reinforced shoulder straps and has a 500-denier Cordura shell, a quick release rescue belt, and a stainless steel ring.

6 Several rescuers often will be used to reach a swift water victim and walk him back to the safety of the shoreline.
6 Several rescuers often will be used to reach a swift water victim and walk him back to the safety of the shoreline.

The NRS Havoc helmet is a one-size-fits-most solution for swift water rescuers and victims, Boughamer says. Its ratchet-adjustable DialFit system allows a custom fit with the twist of a knob, he notes, has an adjustable chin strap, padding in key contact points, and six ventilation/drainage ports to let air in and water out. The Havoc helmet fits head circumferences from 20.86 to 24.4 inches.

Application

Josh Zent, special operations captain for Northwest (AZ) Fire Rescue District, says a lot of swift water rescues occur where washes meet. “They are usually shallow, maybe knee deep or more, but often very swift,” Zent says. “In some rivers like our Santa Cruz, I’ve seen water bank to bank, between 10 and 20 feet deep in places.”

So, rescue techniques depend on the situation the department is facing, he says. “Many rescues are from vehicles stuck in a running wash where the water is above the tire line,” Zent notes. “We always try to work from lower risk to higher risk in a swift water rescue, so we’ll first try to get a PFD to them and then walk the victim back out with three or four rescuers. We’ll use throw bags in some situations and also if one of our responders is swept away.”

7 Dive Rescue International makes throw bags that will hold up to 100 feet of 3⁄8-inch-diameter floating rope. (Photos 5-7 courtesy of Dive Rescue International
7 Dive Rescue International makes throw bags that will hold up to 100 feet of 3⁄8-inch-diameter floating rope. (Photos 5-7 courtesy of Dive Rescue International.)

“When water gets deeper than the knees, it gets pretty tricky,” Zent points out. “We can deploy a swift water boat to get to a victim, which is a 14-foot rigid hull inflatable boat (RIB) that has control lines on each side of the water with three responders in the boat, one to guide it and two to recover the victim. If the victim is near a bridge, we can rappel from the top down to them. Or if there is an active victim moving in the water, we might deploy a strong swimmer in a wetsuit and PFD swimmer vest who is tethered to a partner by a rope that acts as the retrieval mechanism.”

Both Rescue 3 International and Dive Rescue International offer swift water rescue training for first responders. Turnbull says his company has trained more than 400,000 people in 52 countries in water rescue tactics and strategy. Dive Rescue International offers three levels of swift water training, from basic skills to advanced training to a trainer-level course. It also offers a Current Diving course for fire departments with dive teams.

8 SMC makes the Swift Water pulley that’s designed to let water flow through and around it, creating only a minimal amount of drag.
8 SMC makes the Swift Water pulley that’s designed to let water flow through and around it, creating only a minimal amount of drag.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and 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.

9 Rescuers rig a high line to be used to ferry a rescuer to a victim. (Photos 8-9 courtesy of SMC
9 Rescuers rig a high line to be used to ferry a rescuer to a victim. (Photos 8-9 courtesy of SMC.)