Some thoughts on flashfloods and swift water rescue

By: Robert P. Avsec

One of my Fire Service colleagues, Chief Norm RookerChief (Ret.), Ouray County Colorado EMS, recently commented on a Discussion posting on LinkedIn, What Keeps You Up at Night?  I think it’s really pertinent stuff that needs to “stay afloat” in cyberspace.  Here’s what Norm had to say:

What keeps me up at night has little to do with finances, although that is a constant factor for all of us in command. Or public opinion. We must constantly work to let our constituents, the taxpayers, know what they are getting for their tax dollars. That is just a fact of life for those of us in command.

No, what keeps me up at night is wondering whether I, as a chief officer and leader have done everything possible to ensure that my men and women come home from the rescue situation that we have been called out for. Realistic and appropriate training and just as important, realistic SOGs are what keep me up.

With the recent flooding events in the US and around the world, most recently in Colorado, it Military diking ops floodingcomes to flood response. Both the slow rising water type of flooding and flash floods. The plain truth is that because rescue services have come to span the entire spectrum of disasters, both man-made and natural, have fallen to fire service. Like the “A-Team” of the rescue world, the fire service is frequently the first agency most jurisdictions respond for these events. As such,  it is up to us as chief officers to actually see that our people are both properly trained and equipped to respond to those emergencies.

Now no one can be the McGyver of every possible rescue scenario. But the plain fact of the matter is that according to NFPA statistics, a firefighter is four times more likely to lose his or her life in a water rescue response then fighting a fire.  Why?  Because we train and equip our people to do their primary job, fire suppression. A single set of bunker gear and helmet can run over two grand now for a firefighter. We emphasize the care and maintenance of this last ditch line of defense for battling the Red Devil.

However, the unintended consequence of this expense and training is that our firefighters, both paid and volunteer, will wear their “suit of armor” for every response, not just fire suppression.  The result is that we see over and over again firefighters responding to flood emergencies wearing bunker gear.  The very equipment designed to keep a firefighter alive in a structure fire, will the vast majority of the time kill him or her in the water environment, especially moving water.

FF water survival class

Firefighters engaged in water survival training while wearing PPE

Bunker pants act as sea anchors in moving water.   Not sure about that, contact the Denver FD and inquire if they have made any changes to their SOGs, which were no different than the national norm for most FDs, after the events of the August 17, 2000.  On that date, an emergency response to a flash flood resulted in the loss of life of a firefighter who was swept down a storm drain while attempting to rescue a woman being swept in down a city street in knee deep water.  The FF was wearing bunker gear and was swept off his feet by the swift moving current.

We should make it a point to send our firefighters out in duty uniforms, not turnout gear when responding to water emergencies as a minimum. An absolute minimum. Not sure about that? Google swimming in bunker gear. The experiments done by a fire department with an experienced swimmer and member of their department’s dive rescue team showed that within a minute that experienced water rescuer was pulled under by his equipment when he attempted to swim across a swimming pool and, if it were not for the presence of a rescue swimmer, that firefighter and highly trained swimmer would have lost his life.

Bunker gear will hold a significant amount of air and keep us afloat should we fall into still water with it and quickly roll over onto our back with a minimum of movement. However if we flounder, flail or attempt to swim while wearing bunker gear we quickly dispel all of the air, thus losing our buoyancy and will be pulled under by our “protective” gear. The moral, don’t wear bunker gear for water rescue response.   Two departments to go to for SOGs would be the Denver FD, Colorado and the Charlotte FD, North Carolina.


Excellent points Norm! The kind of stuff that doesn’t get near enough attention, except perhaps in places that have recognized the potential ahead of time (the proactive folks) or that have lost one of their own to swift water (the reactive folks).

Water rescue

Water rescue, especially swift water rescue, requires specialized training and equipment to be done safely, effectively, and efficiently.

The really frightening part is that water is everywhere and so is the potential for flashfloods. The “urbanization” of the United States, e.g., the laying of asphalt and concrete for roads and parking lots, etc., now creates the potential for flash floods and swift water incidents just about anywhere in the USA. All it takes is a couple of inches of rain in a short period of time and BINGO!  Where that water would have been absorbed into the soil previously, it now cascades down these man-made “concrete canyons” in our cities and towns.

Coast Guard Type III PFD

Example of U.S. Coast Guard-Approved Type III PFD

In addition to “ditching” the structural PPE on water responses, every fire company should have a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III or higher Personal Floatation Device (PFD) available for each member of the responding crew. The donning of the PFD before entering the hazard area should be akin to donning your structural PPE at a structure fire: No PFD, No access.

What do you think about this?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].