Swift Water Rescue

The term “swift water rescue” refers to a subcategory of technical rescue involving fast-moving water conditions. Although sometimes called “white water rescue”, it applies to any rescue situation in an environment—rural or urban—with moving water, including one not normally submerged, such as a flooded drainage area. While “swift water” has no formal definition in the rescue industry, many industry professionals accept the following qualifications as standard:

  • Water depth of over 2 feet
  • Flow rate of, at minimum, one knot (1.15 miles/hour)
  • Occurrence in a natural watercourse, flood control channel, or flood-affected environment

Basic Rescue Principles of Swift Water Rescue

When engaged in a swift water rescue situation, there are several basic principles to keep in mind to minimize the risk of injury to life and limb. The guidelines for safe and successful operations include:

  • Do prioritize the first the self, then the team, and finally the victim(s)
  • Do employ the proper personal protection equipment (PPE) (note: at a minimum, this includes use of a personal flotation device—PFD—when within 10 feet of swift water)
  • Do maintain a simple rescue plan as the higher the complexity, the greater the potential for failure
  • Do plan for contingencies—i.e., have a backup plan
  • Do deploy upstream spotters and multiple downstream rescuers
  • Do not stand inside the rope bight or on the downstream side of a tension line
  • Do not tie a rope to a rescuer directly
  • Do not put your feet down in swift water that is deeper than knee height
  • Do not tension a line 90 degrees to the current
  • Do not loosen the rope once the victim is contacted
  • Do not rely on the victim to aid in their own rescue—i.e., be proactive

Common Terminology Used in Swift Water Rescue

Similar to other industries, the rescue industry utilizes specific terminology to refer to various elements of the work environment. The following terms are some of the most commonly employed during swift water rescue operations.

swift water rescue definitions

Downstream: the direction in which the water flows

Upstream: the direction from which the water flows

River right: (when facing downstream) the right shoreline

River left: (when facing downstream) the left shoreline

Surface load: positively buoyant debris that remains on the surface of the water

Suspended load: neutrally buoyant debris (e.g., silt)

Bottom load: negatively buoyant debris that remains below the surface of the water

Laminar flow: the multi-speed, layered downstream flow of the river’s main current

Helical flow: the corkscrew-shaped flow of water between the shoreline and main current

Eddy: the horizontal reversal of water flow that occurs due to the differential in current pressure between upstream and downstream sides of an object

Eddy fence: the dividing line between laminar flow and the eddy

Eddy line: the line indicating where the current moves in opposite directions

Smiling hole: an area in the water where there is a strong reversal of flow in the center with downstream current on either side (exit is possible through either side)

Frowning hole: an area in the water where there is a strong reversal of flow from side to side (exit is possible beneath the surface)

Gradient: the amount of elevation loss between two points on a river (usually expressed in terms of feet per mile or percent of slope)

Volume: the amount of water in a river

Chute: a clear tongue of water flowing between two obstacles

Confluence: the junction of two or more water features

Waves: the flow affected by obstacles or constrictions

Boil line: the point downstream of hydraulic where recirculated water meets with downstream flow unaffected by hydraulic

Boulder sieve: a collection of boulders in the river channel that acts as a strainer

Hydraulic: also known as keeper, stopper, or maytag, a formation in the water that occurs when current pours over an obstruction, creating an area of low pressure on the back side that draws water from downstream

Haystack or standing waves: stationary waves in the channel

Holes: river waves caused by an underwater obstacle that breaks back upstream

Humps: waves that may indicate an obstacle beneath the surface

Pillows: waves formed at the upstream sides of obstacles

Horizon line: the appearance of a horizon downstream formed by a steep gradient

Strainer: any river obstacle that allows water, but not a solid object, to pass through

Downstream V: the flow formed between two obstacles

Upstream V: flow pointing upstream caused by an obstruction beneath the surface

Current vector: the strongest laminar flow in a channel (may not be parallel to the shoreline)

Ferry angle: a vector that is at a 45 degree angle to the current vector

Low head dam: a man-made obstruction with sustained reversal that extends from one side of a channel to the other

High side: a maneuver of shifting the weight of a boat crew to the high side (downstream) of a boat to prevent it from flipping

Potential Hazards and Risks Associated With Swift Water Rescues

As with most rescue operations, swift water rescue carries several potential hazards that put both rescuers and rescuees at risk. Some of the most common include:

  • Force of water. The power carried by moving water is deceptively strong and can catch many victims unaware. The standard weight of water (62.3 pounds/cubic feet), when set in motion, can produce tremendous force (e.g., at 8 miles/hour, the force generated by door level water can push a car off a roadway)
  • Cold water. When directly exposed to cold water (less than 70° F or 21° C), a human is at risk of hypothermia if they do not receive proper care. In mild cases, symptoms include diminished physical and mental capacities, while, in severe cases, they include significant impact to brain, heart, lung, and other critical bodily functions. Submerged in water between 70 to 80° F, a person may survive for three or more hours. However, at 32.5° F, their expected survival time is 45 minutes maximum.
  • Low-head dams. This hazard is a man-made feature built across a river or stream for the purpose of confining water where the impoundment, at normal flow levels, is completely within the banks and all flow passes directly over the dam structure within the banks.
  • Entrapment refers to situations in which a person’s entire body or extremity is forced into a crack, crevice, or undercut and pinned there by the force of the water current.
  • These water hazards allow fluid, but not solid objects, to pass through. They pose a risk for people or vessels caught between them and the force of water.
  • Culvert openings. These structures can cause the formation of man-made strainers. The pressure exerted by water rushing into an open drain is extremely powerful and can drag those caught in the current through the opening.
  • Flood control channels. These man-made watercourse structures featuring steep sloping walls are used to move floodwaters out of urban areas. Their design adds difficultly and danger to any basic shoreline rescue operation.
  • Low-water crossings. Low-water crossings provide a convenient method of crossing a watercourse in normal conditions. However, once water levels have risen to the point where it crosses the road surface, the crossing becomes unsafe and unpassable as the water level conceals the roadway, making it easy to fall off either side.
  • Floor debris. Debris—whether surface-level or submerged—that is picked up by the current serves as a hazard to swimmers in the water environment. If moving at fast enough speeds, it can cause serious injuries.

How to Address Potential Hazards and Risks of Swift Water Rescues

Avoiding the potential hazards associated with swift water rescue operations necessitates careful preparation and planning. By putting in the effort to prepare for and plan out the rescue effort prior to its commencement, there is a greater chance of success. Typical safety measures include the following:

Assessing the Potential Hazards

Conducting an initial assessment of the potential hazards that may arise during a rescue mission allow rescue personnel to be better prepared to avoid or overcome them. Things to consider include features and specific hazards of the rescue environment, potential rescue sites, exit and staging areas, anchor points, and landing zones.

Selecting and Using the Proper Equipment

The equipment employed can make or break a rescue operation as it allows personnel to meet the requirements and overcome the challenges of the rescue situation.

Accomplishing Regular and Proper Training

Ensuring the rescue team is regularly trained minimizes the risk of them not being up-to-date on safety and operating procedures. Additionally, it guarantees that their skills remain well-honed.

swift water rescue hazards and risksEstablishing Rescue Procedures

A formal written plan should be completed to address the standard operation protocols for swift water rescue operations. This document should provide a general framework on how such operations should occur.

Maintaining Healthy Physical Form

Swift water rescue is physically taxing. Individuals involved with such rescue operations should be physically fit and have strong swimming abilities. If they do not meet these criteria, then he or she is a detriment to themselves, their fellow team members, and the rescue operation.

Practicing Situational Awareness

All emergency personnel should be aware of what is happening around them. Being aware of their surroundings and situation makes them better able to communicate with other team members and make more effective decisions.

Evaluating the Environment

Once a rescue operation begins, the rescuer should size-up the current environmental conditions to see whether it differs from their original assessment and if the rescue plan requires alternation. Some of the questions to ask include:

  • What is the current stability level of the situation? (i.e., is the risk to the rescuees rising, falling, or steady?)
  • How many rescuees are there, and are any of them injured?
  • Where can rescuer personnel safely deploy themselves?
  • Is there any debris present in the water?
  • Can a PFD be delivered to the rescuees?
  • Should in-water rescue personnel be deployed?

Requirements for Swift Water Rescue Personnel

Currently, there is no national standard of requirements for swift water rescue personnel. However, many organizations are working to establish a set of guidelines and, for the time being, are implementing their own list of qualifications. For example, Standard 1670 from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) outlines the knowledge and skills needed for surface water and swift water rescuers of different levels:

  • Level I Technical rescuers have an understanding of limited rescue techniques
  • Level II Technical rescuers can apply more advanced techniques

More specialized rescuer ratings from NFPA include:

  • White water rescue technician for rescue personnel who regularly encounter wire water
  • Dive Rescuer (level I and II) for technical rescuers who work underwater
  • Ice rescuer (level I and II) for technical rescuers working in water environments with ice
  • Surf Rescue (level I and II) for technical rescuers working in tidal or ocean water

Training Programs for Swift Water Rescue Personnel

Swift water training programs are available from a variety of different organizations, including:

  • American Canoe Association (ACA): basic to advanced courses
  • Rescue 3 International: courses for recreational boaters and rescue professionals
  • Rescue Canada:classes covering a wide range of recreational and industrial needs
  • Raven Rescue: rescue and advanced first aid training for recreational and professional clients in Canada and around the world
  • Sierra Rescue: swift water rescue, wilderness first aid, rope rescue, and animal rescue courses for both recreational and professional clients
  • Swift water Safety Institute: wilderness medicine courses and specialized training for pack rafters and safety kayakers

Some of the most popular training programs employed by swift water rescue personnel include:

ACA Level IV Training

This swift water rescue training program is designed for:

  • Cat boaters
  • Kayakers
  • Rafters
  • River boarders
  • Stand-up paddleboarders
  • Whitewater boaters

In this program, students gain an understanding of river hydrology, risk assessment, self-rescue, how to save others, and how to use the various types of rescue gear and equipment. Some of the skills gained through this program include:

  • Quick reaction time
  • Personal limits
  • Knowledge of basic rope skills
  • Execute a rescue
  • Execution of self-rescue techniques
  • Recognition and avoidance of river hazards
  • Dealing with hazards that pose a danger to the victim and rescuer such as strainers
  • Rescue vest applications
  • Entrapment escape

Swift water Safety Institute Swift Water Rescue Training (SRT-I)

This three-day course teaches the student to engage in rescue activities with limited access to help and resources in more remote settings. It meets the needs of professional river guides, recreational river runners, and anyone working near moving water, providing them with valuable knowledge on how to handle water hazards and emergencies. Upon successful completion, they also receive a three-year swift water rescue training (SRT-I) certification.

Swift Water/Flood Rescue Courses

The Whitewater Rescue Institute provides several difference courses regarding swift water and flood rescue. The courses offered include:

  • Awareness: This course is designed for rescue professionals who provide on-shore assistance during a swift water rescue operation. The majority of the course is spent in the water to give students the opportunity to develop the ability to recognize and avoid the skills necessary for self-rescue scenarios. This is a NFPA standard 1670 compliant course, required for organizations or individuals with exposure to moving water.
  • Operations: This course is designed for the swift water rescue professionals who provide hands-on assistance in swift water rescue operations. The primary focus of this course is hazard recognition and avoidance and self-rescue skills. Students are given opportunities to perform the rescues while in the water and are expected to know how to swim. This is a NFPA standard 1670 compliant course that is required for organizations or individuals that frequently encounter moving water.

Technician: This course is standard if your company responds to moving water accidents; this is a compliant NFPA course with standards in 1006 and 1670. This course is taught through planned scenarios. It takes an in-depth look at crucial rescue skills, such as assessing water conditions, recognizing and avoiding hazards, employing quick rescue techniques, escaping entrapment scenarios, using technical rescue systems, and more.

Swift Water Rescue Training Services From Elite Technical Services Group

Elite Technical Services Group, Inc. is a full-service, nationwide rescue company equipped with professionally trained personnel who provide a wide range of emergency response services. In addition to our on-site and standby rescue capabilities, we also assist companies in training personnel for potentially life-threatening situations, such as confined spaces, industrial workplaces, hazardous material applications, medical emergencies, technical rope and high-angle settings, and swift water environments.

Our swift water training services provide rescue personnel and other industry professionals who encounter swift water with the skills necessary to survive in and overcome the challenges of swift water environments. For additional information on our rescue training services, contact us today or visit us in person during normal business hours.

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