Are You Ready for Highwater/Swiftwater Season?

Chris Mc Loone   Carl J. Haddon

Now that the seemingly endless snows of winter have ended, it appears that spring may have actually sprung. With the spring thaw comes runoff. With runoff comes a rise in creek, river, and lake levels.

Often the aforementioned are accompanied by flooding, which in many areas of the country (including my own) causes tones to drop for water rescue calls. As many of us know, moving water is a force of nature that rarely loses its battles.

I am still amazed by the number of firefighters I meet around the country who do not know how to swim. The ability to swim is rarely a condition of hire for a fire department. I am also astounded at the number of fire departments I encounter around the country that do not carry life jackets or personal flotation devices (PFDs) as part of their personal protective equipment (PPE) cadre. Many of us still rely on the ability to draft water for firefighting purposes. Whether we are drafting water from a pond, a lake, a creek, a river, or even a swimming pool, shouldn’t we have some sort of PFD to help prevent the unthinkable should we accidently fall in, especially if we are in turnout gear?

Do you know what the average depth of running water needs to be for it to be able to wash your vehicle away and carry it downstream? The answer is 12 inches. Did you know that it takes less than 12 inches of running water to sweep you off of your feet and carry you downstream? I know this from personal experience, as I almost drowned on a call in 18 inches of cold rushing Rocky Mountain creek water some years ago. At the time, I didn’t think a life jacket was called for. I do now.


When you think of a life jacket or PFD, you picture an orange inflatable jacket with white straps that you are required to wear when you rent a fishing boat or that sits beneath the seats of the harbor cruise boats when you are on vacation. Yes, those are typically U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type II Square Top Yoke standard duty life jackets. Are these life jackets good enough for use by on-duty rescue or emergency services personnel? No, they are not.

The U.S. Coast Guard recognizes four classifications of PFDs:

  • Type II: described above.
  • Type III: typically worn by water skiers, personal water craft pilots and passengers, and for paddle sports such as canoeing.
  • Type IV: throwable, such as handled seat cushions.
  • Type V: designed and rated for swiftwater and whitewater activities; also the classification for life jackets designed for swiftwater rescue work. They typically come with a number of features not found in recreational life jackets. Some of these features include a place to affix a blunt tipped rescue knife, zippered pockets for essential gear, and an emergency whistle. Some of the newer, better models include an integral web belt strap with a heavy duty D-ring on the back for tying rescuers off to rescue lines. These straps/belts always include a quick-release, high-strength buckle that allows rescuers to activate and jettison the connection should they become entangled or otherwise need to immediately disconnect from the rescue line in an emergency situation.

Do you know what type of PFDs you have in your department? I ask for the obvious reason but also because I recently came upon some new whitewater rescue kits (donated to our team by local law enforcement) that seemed to be a great addition to our inventory of gear. Included in these kits were mesh wet bags containing a life jacket/PFD, a throw (rope) bag, a whistle, a blunt tipped knife, and a plastic water rescue helmet. Interestingly enough, the PFDs in these kits are only Type III jackets-not what I would wear in the rapids of the Salmon River on one of our many rescue calls each year. Understand that there is nothing wrong with Type III jackets; they just are not suited for the type of swiftwater work we do. They could be fine for use in a lake or a still body of water, where there is no threat of rushing water holding the wearer underwater. As with many tools in our toolbox, the time you need a life jacket is not the time to figure out if the department carries the proper type or size of PFD.


Do you know what condition your PFDs are in? Many brands of rescue life jackets are susceptible to dry rot and, as a result, can actually lose some of their buoyancy over time. It seems like lots of water rescue gear is subject and susceptible to deterioration. Wet suits, dry suits, throw bags, booties, water rescue gloves, and water rescue rope all take a beating and require replacement faster than many other items in our arsenal. Many departments across the country see this deterioration often happen as a result of nonuse. There are a couple of commercially available products on the market that can be used to treat certain water rescue gear such as PFDs. Most of these products are spray-on ultraviolet (UV) ray inhibitors and can also be used on equipment like rafts. Should you decide to use these products, please make sure to check with your respective equipment manufacturers prior to application for compatibility.

Finally, you know those fabulous safety vests that we have to wear while working on or near the highway at vehicle accidents? In many states, the Department of Transportation/Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement for wearing PFDs/life jackets while working near or at a waterway is very similar to that of having to wear a safety vest. Do you know where your state stands on this requirement? I leave you with a question posed to me by some of my own crew: “In so much as the state highway in our response area parallels the Salmon River for some 50-plus miles, when we roll on a car wreck into the river, do we need to try to wear a safety vest and a life jacket?”

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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