Water rescue requires absolute adherence to safety precautions
By Fred LaFemina
Photo Cary Ulrich
In January, a commercial jetliner made an emergency landing into the Hudson River. This may not be a common occurrence, but domestic flight patterns in the United States put aircraft everywhere, which underscores that we must be ready for the almost unimaginable. The U.S. Airways crash was a rarity, for sure, but water operations are conducted in jurisdictions across the United States every day.
Left vs. Right
On the left (I mean the West!) Coast, water-rescue incidents are more common than in the Northeast. Most of the water emergencies occur during the warmer summer months: boating and watercraft accidents, drownings, vehicles in the water and the rare (but not unheard of) occurrence of a helicopter down in a river.
The FDNY staffs dive units, but most of our rescues are on the surface of the water. In addition, FDNY ladder companies located close to shorelines are trained as water-rescue units and are prepared with proper equipment for such incidents. They’re able to safely enter the water and conduct operations at water- and ice-related incidents.
Risk vs. Gain
Despite such preparation, several incidents have occurred during my shift that involved members entering the water without the proper equipment and totally disregarding their own safety. This type of behavior puts both the rescuer and the victim at risk.
The risk increases when the incident occurs during darkness. When jammed up on the fire floor, you usually have a way out through a door or window. In the water, there are no windows to jump out of.
In addition, you must consider risk vs. gain. Fewer accident victims survive in water than they do in fire. There’s a good chance the person you’re “rescuing” is already dead. Always keep this in mind when operating in or near the water and have ultimate respect for the dangers it brings.
Following are some safety tips for operating at water-related incidents:
• Members entering the water should be wearing a personal flotation device (PFD).
• Members entering the water should be tethered by a rope and remain in the line of sight of the members on shore. Note: If you don’t have rope to tether the rescuer, proceed with extreme caution.
• Carry a device such as a buoy ring, a throw rope or a PFD to give to the victim.
• During night operations, use spotlights, flashlights, apparatus lights or boat lights to keep track of the victim and rescuer.
• Use thermal imaging cameras (TIC) to locate victims on the surface or to keep track of members entering the water. Note: TICs cannot be used to locate victims under the water.
• If you’re called to a surface incident, request dive units immediately. A surface rescue can quickly materialize into a sub-surface incident.
• In a moving body of water, request the current and tide conditions from your dispatcher. Currents can pull victims downstream at a fast rate, changing where you need to search.
• When using both land and marine units, make sure they coordinate through command, especially when rescue swimmers are in the water. Communication and close supervision is critical to safety.
• Land units should have the capability to communicate with marine units and vice versa.
• Communication becomes very important when dealing with multiple agencies (Coast Guard, wildlife and fisheries, police, etc.)
• Know the capabilities of your on-duty personnel and put them in positions where their strengths or weaknesses can ensure a successful outcome. Remember: Certified does not mean qualified.
A Final Word
Water operations are dangerous in nature and require absolute discipline as well as maximum supervision. Train like you would operate; it will instill confidence when the real incident comes calling.
Chief Fred LaFemina is a 24-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), presently chief of Rescue Operations. He has been with Special Operations for more than 20 years and is the task force leader for New York’s Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue team. He is also the operations chief on the USAR IST White Team. LaFemina has written many articles on fire operations and technical rescue and lectures throughout the country. He is a technical editor of FireRescue.
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