Aerial Apparatus Makes Swiftwater Rescue
By Travis Boudrey

In late winter and early spring, the combination of weather conditions and human behavior can create a recipe for disaster, especially when roads with low crossings become flooded due to overflowing rivers and streams. Sometimes, as motorists approach these crossings, they seem to overestimate the ability of their automobile and underestimate the power of water. This serious miscalculation can be caused by any number of things: the driver’s experience in a particular automobile, the driver’s previous experience with low-water crossings, prior knowledge of water behavior in the area, the time of day, current weather conditions and any alcohol or drug use by the driver.

Ladder 1 is backing up to the water’s edge. The turntable and tail end of the aerial apparatus will jut out over the water in an effort to maximize the reach of the platform. Photo courtesy Tom Good

Firefighters from the Fayetteville Fire Department’s Ladder 1 take extra personal floatation devices (PFDs) into the platform for those trapped in the river. Photo courtesy Tom Good

If the attempt to cross is unsuccessful, the car usually becomes stalled and will be washed downstream. This situation inevitably generates a desperate 911 call to local emergency responders to rescue someone trapped in their automobile or in the water. This situation repeats itself several times a year in the United States.

In this article, I’ll discuss one such incident that occurred on March 23 in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas, and then offer valuable lessons learned that you can share with your department.

The Call
At 1703 HRS on March 23, the Fayetteville (Ark.) Fire Department (FFD) received a mutual-aid request from Washington County Tactical Rescue and the West Fork Fire Department for an occupied automobile stalled in swiftwater on a low-water bridge located at Dye Creek in West Fork.

While FFD Ladder 1 and Battalion 1 were en route to the scene, we notified units on scene via the Washington County fire dispatch frequency that they needed to make an opening for Ladder 1 and advised them that we would be backing in for best access. Upon arrival, we located a suitable driveway, turned the truck around and backed down to the edge of the water so that the turntable extended out over the water.

At the Scene

We observed that the stalled automobile was occupied by a 30-year-old female and three of her children—two boys (ages 6 and 4) and an infant. The water level came up to the trim on the upstream side of the automobile.

The aerial is in the process of raise, rotate and extend. Overhead obstructions are always a concern during this operation. Fortunately, we had an open area to operate the apparatus. Photo courtesy Tom Good

Early and regular communication with the patient(s) is key. Here, the situation is being closely evaluated as firefighters in the platform start to communicate with and reassure the occupants of the automobile.
Photo courtesy Tom Good

While we were deploying, a Washington County Tactical Rescue Team Member informed me that he had witnessed the car move downstream since he had arrived. I asked him to deploy upstream spotters and downstream safeties. Then I asked the crew of Ladder 1 to remove all the occupants as soon as possible. In my opinion, we were in a critical situation where the automobile could be swept off the bridge at any moment.

At 1724 HRS, we deployed personnel for an aerial rescue, and by 1730 HRS, all three children and their mother had been removed from the vehicle and transferred to the safety of Ladder 1’s platform. The four were removed via the passenger-side window by firefighters on the platform. The mother handed the infant to one of the rescuers before they had time to place a PFD on the child, so the rescuer had to hold the baby for the duration of the rescue. PFDs were placed on the two boys and their mother.

They were then taken to the east bank where they were turned over to the ambulance crew from Central Emergency Medical Service. They were checked thoroughly and refused further treatment/transport.

Lessons Learned
This emergency call resulted in a rapid response from all agencies and an efficient rescue of those trapped inside the automobile via the use of an aerial apparatus. But water rescue calls, particularly those that involve aerial apparatus as a means of rescue, don’t occur regularly. Calls of this sort are usually shore-based or boat-based rescues. As a result, they are time-consuming and labor-intensive operations that generate a significant level of risk to both the trapped victims and the rescuers. They therefore demand tireless preparation, planning and training on the part of those who are called to perform water rescue work. Our people and equipment must be up to the challenge and be aware of the risks associated with this environment.

After maneuvering to the passenger’s side of the vehicle, rescuers hand the PFDs to the occupants. Note the water level on the passenger’s side and the standing waves below the platform. Photo courtesy Tom Good

One of the rescuers is holding the infant, which was the first occupant to be removed from the automobile. Photo courtesy Tom Good

Some of the major lessons learned and observations that came from this incident include:
1. Direction/location of approach, as well as the space needed to set up the aerial apparatus, was given via radio while en route.
2. We had plenty of room and a solid surface to turn the apparatus around and back it down to the water’s edge. A wide, improved surface on the approach to the crossing made for an excellent set-up spot on the east side of the river. But not all river access points will provide this opportunity, so pre-plan locations in advance to determine what you can do in terms of apparatus positioning and what to expect from water flow. Water rescue calls aren’t well suited for a one-size-fits-all approach. Remain flexible and willing to adapt to your surroundings!
3. The rescue operation was coordinated by responding members of the Washington County technical rescue team and the West Fork Fire Department. One of the main reasons this incident was successful was because of the prior joint training, regular communication, common radio frequencies and a prevailing philosophy of interoperability shared by these two agencies. Our crews are regularly called upon to work with other departments because of automatic- and mutual-aid agreements. It has been a common denominator in enhanced service delivery and the safety of all concerned.
4. The turntable was placed at the water’s edge for maximum reach and capability.
5. This response served to improve relationships/profiles with other agencies on the scene. All responding agencies were thrilled with the outcome and the lower level of risk encountered by all who responded, which was facilitated by the aerial rescue (as opposed to a boat-based or live-bait rescue).
6. The rising water, the precarious position of the vehicle, the potentially lethal boil line below the bridge and the elapsed time combined to create a tremendous sense of urgency. So the primary focus was to outfit the patients with PFDs and transfer them all to the platform without having to make a return trip and without delay.

One of the two boys is removed from the automobile to the safety of the aerial platform. Photo courtesy Tom Good

The mother of the three boys was the last to be removed from the vehicle. Photo courtesy Tom Good
7. Upstream spotters and downstream safeties were deployed to keep an eye out for things that might float down the river and further complicate the already delicate situation.
8. Some onlookers/media personnel who were not wearing PFDs were standing near the water’s edge, so rescue personnel moved them 10 feet away from the water’s edge for their safety.
9. Off-duty firefighters normally assigned to Ladder 1 as driver/operators responded with their respective adjoining volunteer fire departments so that they could assist, if needed, with communications and operations.
10. The aerial platform was deployed to the upstream side of the car. If the car had moved downstream and the platform was at the downstream window, the force of the current would’ve lodged the car against the platform. This would’ve generated significant leverage against the platform and compromised the rescuers, patients and the apparatus itself.
11. In some swiftwater rescues, rocks, sand bags or fully equipped rescue personnel may have to be positioned inside the vehicle to keep it from washing further downstream as the weight of multiple occupants is removed from it. This may seem extreme, but the rescuer’s chances of survival are far better than the other occupants of the automobile if things go south. In their position, the rescuer can also help coordinate the rescue of the remaining occupants if more than one trip is necessary. Their presence and communication should also have a calming effect on those waiting to be removed from the vehicle.

Public Education
In recent years, the fire service has made significant improvements to its public education efforts. It has now evolved into a new all-risk type of education that includes talking about the risks associated with moving water, as well as areas with roads and bridges that are prone to water hazards.

The platform is rotated to deliver the four patients to the edge of the river. The boil line below the bridge can be seen in the lower left-hand corner of this picture. Photo courtesy Tom Good

The patients are assisted out of the platform by the ambulance crew and other emergency responders. They were examined and assessed by the paramedic and refused further treatment. The driver was ticketed by police in this matter. Photo courtesy Tom Good
Tip: A close working relationship with city or county street/road departments can help your department educate the public about road closures as the need arises. Water and moving water safety educational efforts are already teaching the drivers of tomorrow to avoid flooded roadways.

It’s important to note that, just as with fire safety measures, we’ll never know how many lives will be saved (or have already been saved) due to improved public education efforts regarding moving water safety. But if we save just one person from injury or death, we’ve done our job.

Points to Remember
Remember to add water safety and flood awareness to your all hazard/fire safety educational demonstrations. Be proactive, and shut down flooded water crossings or roads that are under water so drivers are forced to take alternative routes. Work together with your neighboring departments to form a qualified, equipped and well prepared group of rescuers that can perform rescues in many tactical disciplines, including the unforgiving environment of swift water rescue.

Seek outside training when possible, and train tirelessly in house on this type of call. They are infrequent occurrences with a very high level of risk to our people. At the scene, weigh your options carefully, and don’t overlook or dismiss the simple solutions. Consider what can be accomplished with those on scene and what will happen if you must wait for additional rescuers to arrive. Lastly, leave your turnouts in the truck because they’re a serious liability in moving water. Your life may depend on it.

Travis Boudrey has served as a second-generation firefighter/EMT with the Fayetteville (Ark.) Fire Department (FFD) for 17 years, four of which he served as the C shift battalion chief. He has also served for more than 5 years as a volunteer for the Farmington Fire Department near his home. Boudrey recently completed his A.A.S. in fire science at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by FETC on July 23, 2010 at 2:16pm
We had a successful swift water rescue for which we used an extension ladder to make a bridge because our 110' aerial ladder did not have access to the incident site.

And yes, as Ben said, the vehicle drifted and became lodged on an obstacle from which it never moved until the wrecker company made a vehicle recovery.
Comment by Ben Waller on July 23, 2010 at 7:31am
It's always nice to hear about a successful swiftwater rescue, particularly where an aerial is used successfully. Those incidents are a small percentage of the overall number of swiftwater rescues.

I do think one thing in the article could have been more accurate, though.

The car doesn't always get washed downstream. It is more accurate to say that it "sometimes" gets washed downstream. I've worked a number of car-in-the-water calls, including one where we used an aerial ladder and a rope system to rescue the driver, and the car never moved more than a few inches during any of these incidents.

Cars that are swept away generally stop at the first obstacle - a guardrail, tree, structure, or even against a boulder on the river bottom.

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