Airboat: Advantages for River Rescue Missions

The Sparrowbush (NY) Engine Company has been very successful in rescuing individuals on local rivers and lakes for 60 years.

Our main area of operations is the Delaware River (the border between New York and Pennsylvania near Port Jervis, New York), and we have used various types of boats such as propeller, driven jet drive, fiberglass, inflatable/rigid raft types, and airboats. As a result of those years of experience that included some very challenging rescues in difficult conditions, we have found the airboat is the most versatile, safest, and most effective vessel for our river, lake, marsh, and winter snow/ice operations. It can traverse very shallow water; it rides high on rough and raging currents; and it can skim over land, snow, and ice. Skid plates on the bottom of the aluminum hull help avoid serious damage caused by semi submerged rocks.

UNIQUE AIRBOAT CAPABILITIES

Because of the large square footage of the hull (18 x 9 feet), the boat drafts very little water and is very stable, even in the roughest river conditions. The 162-square-foot area of the hull allows us to bridge across and over swells and provides little resistance even when navigating directly upstream. The large area also reduces ground pressure, much like the treads of a military tank, when traversing mud, sand bars, and other nonflooded solid and semi solid areas. Wind and water currents are important variables the pilot must monitor. Often, we need to lessen power to keep more of the hull in the water to maintain directional control.

BUILT ON EXPERIENCE

Our previous airboat served us well for 20 years. In 2019, we were operating on a mutual-aid rescue on the Neversink River, usually a rather docile river except when heavy rains increase the flow dramatically. In this case, it had rained heavily the night before and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which had dammed the headwaters (as a water source for New York City) to prevent flooding, released additional waters, causing it to become a raging river. The day started out clear and sunny, and the river flow was extremely high. A man and his young son were reported missing.

The airboat is a versatile rescue craft. It holds a pilot, a co-pilot, and one or two rescue divers and has room to safely transport a victim in a stokes or backboard. (Photos by Olivia Mitchell.)

A large search and rescue operation was initiated. Numerous conventional rescue boats, jet drive inboard and outboard units, along with outboard prop units from several counties were called to the scene, but only our airboat and one other airboat were able to cruise upstream against the high flow and rapid rough current. The prop and jet boats just did not have the power or stability required.

Unfortunately, both individuals drowned despite our best efforts. We operated the boat for nearly two full days searching for the victims, but it was apparent after several close calls, nearly turning the boat over and needing rescue ourselves, that the old reliable boat no longer had the power to safely navigate the changing extreme currents and winds we were encountering.

I (Flynn) chaired a committee of fire commissioners and chief line officers to look at several different types of boats. After much consideration of alternatives, we decided on an updated and more powerful airboat but with the desirable design characteristics of our existing boat. We drew up specifications after seeking input from other airboat operators in New Jersey and New York.

IMPORTANT DESIGN FEATURES

Based on previous successful experience, we went with an 18-foot-long × 9-foot-wide boat hull, which included a bow extension to allow us to nose into brush, trees, and so on along riverbanks without capsizing the boat. The boat can be crewed by two pilot-operators, one an officer and one a rescue diver in the front. Limiting crew size allows us to take on several victims, if necessary, and still maintain safe load limits. During extremely low water and wind conditions, we still attempt to maintain the same crew staffing, as these conditions can prove to be even more challenging.

We also specified a two-seat operator’s cab, which enabled one of the operators to assist the crew/diver with rescue while the other could pilot the boat without switching seats and without a loss of control. The rudder stick was moved from the side of the seat to between the seats so either operator could pilot the boat safely. An electronic throttle was specified and placed within easy reach of both pilots. For the best visibility, a windshield and wipers were included with angled extensions on each side to deflect wind away from the operators. To increase visibility for nighttime operations, LED floodlights were mounted on top of the protective frame around the motor.

A lower center of gravity improves handling and safety, so we designed a lower cab and seat. A tinted roof panel on the cab allows visibility up the cliff sides but keeps operators cool during intense sunlight on extended operations.

The bow extension provides a bridge to get rescue crew members onto shore to reach victims who may be stranded there and to provide a bridge to get victims from the boat to the shore and medical attention.

Pilot and co-pilot seats are separated by a control stick. A bench seat for two is located at the foot and front of the cab. Instrumentation consists of rpm/hour meter, temperature, oil, fuel, and voltage. There are eight light switches for various combinations of emergency lights, navigation lights, and flood lights. There is a windshield wiper switch and a fire radio mounted on top of the dash.

We increased drive power for the boat by using a 565-horsepower supercharged V-8 engine. This drives a three-blade propeller and provides plenty of power for adequate control and to run upstream even in surging currents and stiff winds.

Although the motor and prop look oversized, adequate power is necessary when the boat has to fight against strong winds and river currents, often simultaneously. When designing your boat, ensure it has enough power to overcome these forces so it cannot be pushed into a dangerous position such as across the current. This could capsize the boat, endangering rescuers and victims.

We were flexible on the power and three- or four-blade air prop, but all else was firm. We scoped out two of the possible bidders by having one of our deputy chiefs who was on vacation visit them to see what their build capability was and then solicited bids. We received bids from three companies and selected Diamondback Airboats in Cocoa, Florida.

Throughout 2020, we have made several minor additions—to the trailer to assist loading and additional grab handles on each side of the boat cab to assist the operators while operating in swift water. The new boat has resulted in one life saved and, based on experience, this will be one of many.


Jack Flynn is a 50-year member of the Sparrowbush (NY) Engine Company and is deputy chief/safety officer, having served three terms as a past chief and former dive master. He is a former career chief and structural/crash rescue/EMT firefighter and was part of the federal response to Ground Zero on 9/11. He has co-authored several articles for Fire Engineering and has presented at FDIC International and the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.

JERRY KNAPP is a 44-year firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department and the author of House Fires (Fire Engineering). He is a training officer with the Rockland County Fire Training Center and chief of the hazmat team and a technical panel member for the Underwriters Laboratories research on fire attack at residential fires. He is the author of the Fire Attack chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering.

One Over the Wall: Successful Rescue Provides Lessons

It was a mild summer evening in June 2020, when the Sparrowbush (NY) Engine Company (SECO) was called to respond to a motor vehicle accident (MVA) in the Hawks Nest area. The Hawks Nest, also known as NY Rt 97, is a very scenic roadway cut into the mountainside, resulting in a several-hundred-foot near-vertical cliff down to the Delaware River on one side and the steep mountainside on the other side.

This stretch of roadway is in the westernmost part of Orange County, approximately two miles west of the village of Sparrowbush and six miles west of Port Jervis, New York. Far below the road surface is the Delaware River, which is part of the National Park Service jurisdiction as part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Both the river and the roadway attract thousands of tourists throughout the year, especially in the summer, along with vehicles such as motorcycles, campers, kayaks, canoes, rafts, tubes, and cars and trucks.

In recent years, the road has turned into a mecca for racing enthusiasts of all types, including motorcyclists, who frequently race back and forth while being filmed by their cohorts. Although the area is patrolled by police, once they leave to answer a call, the racing resumes.

Responding to the MVA alarm, SECO Chief James Oosterom arrived on the scene and, after a quick size-up, spotted a damaged motorcycle on the highway, adjacent to the wall. He interviewed an eyewitness who saw the lone cyclist strike the outer wall and be ejected over the wall, falling downward toward the river. The chief called for mutual aid to activate the high angle rope team, staffed by members from Orange County volunteer fire departments, and the fire police to initiate diversion of traffic off the narrow road to other routes.

The Hawks Nest, with a several-hundred-foot near-vertical cliff down to the Delaware River on one side and the steep mountainside on the other side. (Photos by Olivia Mitchell.)
MULTIAGENCY COORDINATION

As mutual-aid officers began to arrive, Oosterom worked to establish a unified command post, which eventually included Pennsylvania (Matamoras and Westfall Fire Departments) and out-of-county officers from Sullivan County, along with their rescue apparatus; ALS/BLS personnel; Deerpark Police; and NY State Police. Managing command with so many out-of-state and out-of-county assets using different radio frequencies takes a skillful hand; the chief was hard pressed initially until he handed off various operational assets to Orange County Deputy Fire Coordinators Jim Rohner and John Tunney, who assisted in establishing sectors staffed by incoming mutual-aid units.

The incident commander’s (IC’s) strategy would normally be in this case to conduct the operation as a recovery rather than a rescue based on the witness statements and the obvious extreme severity of the mechanism of injury of both the initial crash and the fall that followed. Members of SECO along with past chiefs have had numerous rescue/recovery experiences on the river that did not follow predicted or expected outcomes. Experience told him to try something as a long shot for victim survival. He called for quiet on the chaotic scene and yelled to try to make contact with the victim. No one on scene initially expected this to be successful, because of the jagged rock outcroppings, trees the victim had to hit on his gravity induced trip down, and the hundreds of feet to the river that the victim had to traverse. The general assumption was that this would be a recovery of a deceased victim and not a rescue. Surprisingly, a weak cry was heard—or at least some rescuers on scene thought so. Again, a request was made by operations through Command for silence while they pursued the slim possibility that someone survived the fall! Once again, a voice was faintly but positively heard!

Unified command and rapid delegation of section chiefs lead to success at multiagency or complicated rescues.

The technical rescue team starts the recovery operation.

Location of the accident scene and final location of the victim over the wall.

With a confirmed victim’s voice heard, the IC quickly changed strategy from recovery mode to rescue mode with associated tactical urgency. Assuming injuries were severe based on the mechanism of injury (a motorcycle accident followed by a several-hundred-foot fall down a cliff), the victim’s Golden Hour was quickly running out. Strategy now emphasized urgency for the rope teams to set up, descend, find, stabilize, package, and move the victim to definitive care. The IC initiated a rescue team from above and one from below. Experience, the simple concept to call out and listen, led to determining this was a rescue and caused the change in strategy and tactics.

RIVER OPERATIONS

Battalion 8 Water Rescue Task Force is a well-established, well-equipped, well-trained, and often- used task force that routinely responds to the Delaware River. The team consists of airboats from SECO and Lumberland and additional prop and jet boat support from Port Jervis, Huguenot, Matamoras, and Westfall. These units are staffed with rescue divers and emergency medical technicians.

Although there was a swift current, several rapids, and a crosswind, which an airboat is very sensitive to, the IC felt this might be the quickest way to find and rescue the victim. A water operations section was established at Number 2 Beach, a popular recreation site in the Tri State area, approximately two miles south of the Hawks Nest, the site of the original motorcycle MVA. We use this beach as a common access point to get rescue boats into the river and to get rescued victims handed off to EMS. Water Ops was managed by Hugenot Assistant Chief Jeff Conklin, while the SECO airboat was staffed by Captain Chris Morgan, Rescue Diver Kevin Fisher, and I (Flynn), all intimately familiar with the dangerous idiosyncracies of the Delaware River.

As the airboat successfully cleared the second set of rapids around Cherry Island and headed for the Hawks Nest, we had to temporarily reduce the airboat speed because of the strong crosswind in the river valley. We initiated a drive-by search pattern as we approached the general assumed area of the fall victim. There were negative results on this first pass.

Frustration set in between Command and the airboat, as radio communication was spotty at best and Command needed accurate information as to whether to commit additional rope team members if boat operations were not feasible.

On the second pass, Morgan identified an object located partially up the cliff, approximately 25 feet from the shoreline, which needed more investigation. I successfully maneuvered the airboat between a strand of trees and large rocks, fighting the crosswind and strong current, and off-loaded Morgan (an EMT) and Fisher. Within seconds, they signaled on the portable radio on the airboat ops channel that they had located the victim and he was alive. This positive news was relayed to Command and the Water Ops section chief at Number 2 Beach but took several tries because of heavy radio traffic. Rope operations from above were halted based on the victim’s location and the boat crew’s ability to retrieve the victim and transport him to EMS.

At this time, Lumberland’s airboat arrived on the scene with highly experienced EMT Ann Sidell. She joined Morgan in doing an assessment of the victim, who could barely speak and had no idea where he was. He had suffered a possible concussion, possible internal injuries, and rib and leg injuries. He had no helmet, which apparently was ripped off on the trip down but probably played a significant part in preventing serious head trauma.

After evaluating/stabilizing and packaging him in a special floatable backboard for movement to the boat, the next step was to get him successfully over the scattered rocks and trees to the airboat without disturbing any loitering rattlesnakes known to inhabit the area. Another boat from Huguenot arrived with one individual to add to the lift/carry group.

Once the severely injured male was safely loaded onto the SECO airboat, the dangerous downstream journey began. Arrangements were made by radio to meet up with ALS EMS units at the beach. Operating the airboat downstream requires the most skill, experience, and knowledge of the river. Once you commit to a course downstream, it is harder to dodge an obstacle because you must keep your speed up to exceed the current flow. When headed upriver, you sometimes can spot an object, back off the throttle, and use the opposing current to give you a little space and time to navigate around it.

Because of the multitrauma and critical nature of the victim, an additional EMT from Lumberland along with the victim and our EMT presented a more than optimal weight load on the airboat. This made piloting the airboat more complicated. However, I was able to negotiate the downstream rapids and winds to safely transfer the victim to the awaiting EMS personnel. After stabilization, the victim was transported by ground to the closest landing zone and was airlifted to the closest trauma center.

We have all been on calls where the victim’s odds of survival are very low. Experience levels of the command personnel and the airboat crew made the difference between life and death.

LESSONS LEARNED

Experience-based command decisions. Part of the command process is to develop strategies and tactics and evaluate and make risk-benefit decisions for the overall operation. In this case, those decisions were initially based on the mechanism of injury of the victim. Like the first size-up of a fire, the best information available is often incomplete and includes direct scene observations, witness statements, and assumptions. Successful ICs use their experience to temper these factors to guide important strategic command decisions. In this case, the IC tempered the obvious size-up facts with his experience and did not assume this was a recovery until all options were exhausted. It likely made the difference between life and death for the victim.

Simple works. Calling for the victim to illicit a response changed strategy here from recovery to successful rescue. Think back to the basics of even CPR: The first step is to say, “Hey, are you okay?”—i.e., make contact with the victim. Radios, drones, winches, airboats, mutual aid, tech rescue teams, and helicopters are all complicated and valuable tools. Sometimes, just plain yelling works wonders. “Hey, are you okay?” That simple statement provides a lot of information for your size-up. Never forget the basics. Consider using the PA system on your rig for mass evacuations or to call out to unseen victims.

Think multidimensional. On the scene, we tend to focus on what is directly in front of us—and for good reason. Command’s job is to think beyond what the rescuers see and are so deeply engaged in to find possible alternate rescue options that maybe quicker, easier, or safer than the current operation being executed. If staffing and equipment allow, conduct multidimensional rescue operations as long as they do not interfere with each other or take resources from each other.

Unique situations require unique equipment. If you have unique facilities or environments like the Delaware River in your first-due area, plan for what you need, buy it, and train in it long before you need it. In this case, an airboat was a critical part of one of many successful search and rescue missions.

Preplanning, pretraining, and experience. All these brought the right resources for a successful rescue under difficult conditions. It is critical to use the most experienced operators you have for these challenging rescues. We must train and practice these critical skills as opposed to trying to figure it out on arrival. On game day, we must be able to execute properly, efficiently, and safely because we have practiced, as the old expression says, “until we can’t get it wrong.” Use the experience of veteran members to help sharpen the skills of less experienced members in your organization.

Unified command. Experience has shown that multiagency rescues require designating sectors with section leaders responsible for one part of the operation if staffing allows. We can all do one job much better that we can do several. Avoid multitasking if possible.

In retrospect, we were all amazed that this individual survived this fall and is out of the hospital with apparently no lasting, permanent injuries. It appears that as he fell, he passed through several trees, which broke his fall somewhat as he finally rolled and landed on the rocks several hundred feet below. What could have been a tragic event turned out thankfully to not be so and provided lessons learned for future incidents.

Just three months after this rescue, SECO responded to another challenging alarm on Hawks Nest. In October 2020, SECO responded to another motorcycle accident with injuries. This time, hundreds of motorcyclists were cruising the Hawks Nest, and several had been racing back and forth across the dangerous mountain road. One northbound motorcyclist lost control of his motorcycle, skidded several hundred feet, then violently hit the rockface mountainside. Based on accident reconstruction, his speed was estimated at nearly 100 miles per hour when he lost control, skidded approximately 200 feet, then hit the wall. This completely demolished the motorcycle, breaking it into two major pieces and scattering parts in all directions with almost explosive speed. The crash also caused major, life-threatening trauma to the operator, who was now lying in the roadway.

On the opposite side of the road from his impact point and several hundred feet down the road in a pull-off overlook area, several motorists and cyclists were parked. Major pieces of the motorcycle slammed into these pedestrians. One bystander was taking pictures of the fall foliage and was struck by a large part of the motorcycle, was critically injured, and died several days later. Firefighters and EMS personnel on scene were faced with two very critical trauma patients. Both victims were flown out by separate medevac helicopters.

Ironically, the young man who had survived the fall over the wall (subsequent to a motorcycle accident) in late June was parked in the same pull-off and was narrowly missed by a piece of the debris, which struck his car and landed next to him, thus avoiding what would appear to be certain death for the second time in less than five months in nearly the same location!

The valuable lesson here is that as firefighters, we must constantly conduct threat analysis to attempt to predict the types of responses we can be called to in our first-due areas and train and prepare for these emergencies. We must prepare for “Don’t worry, it can’t happen here” types of alarms. We should all take a lesson from SECO: It can happen here, it does happen here, and you will be called to mitigate the incident. Be ready.


Jack Flynn is a 50-year member of the Sparrowbush (NY) Engine Company and is deputy chief/safety officer, having served three terms as a past chief and former dive master. He is a former career chief and structural/crash rescue/EMT firefighter and was part of the federal response to Ground Zero on 9/11. He has co-authored several articles for Fire Engineering and has presented at FDIC International and the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.

JERRY KNAPP is a 44-year firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department and the author of House Fires (Fire Engineering). He is a training officer with the Rockland County Fire Training Center and chief of the hazmat team and a technical panel member for the Underwriters Laboratories research on fire attack at residential fires. He is the author of the Fire Attack chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and has written numerous articles for Fire Engineering.

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