Floodwater Rescue Considerations

Water rescue incidents that occur in suburban and urban communities present challenges that may not always be present when responding to incidents on rivers and other large bodies of water. In this post, we will discuss some special considerations when responding to floodwater incidents.

Differential Pressures

This is the hazard that scares me the most because first responders have been killed and injured by it before. Differential pressure occurs whenever two bodies of water are equalizing. I have written about differential pressure numerous times before by analyzing various LODD case studies. Take a few minutes and read about them at the links below.

Floodwater LODD: Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned from a Water Rescue LODD


Floodwater that ravages our communities will bring hazardous materials along with it. Think about the fuels and pesticides that people have in their sheds and garages. Bulk chemical storage systems at can be compromised during storm events. Sewer systems can also become inundated and spew large quantities of sewage out into the floodwater. These are just a few examples of how floodwater becomes contaminated.

The best protection from hazardous materials contamination is by avoiding it. If that is not possible, wear proper water rescue PPE which includes dry suits. Dry suits help keep the water away from your body, minimizing your potential exposure to hazardous materials. Just remember, dry suits are not actually certified chemical protective clothing and it is still possible to become contaminated even in the water rescue environment.

Widespread Effects

Typically, when there is flooding in one jurisdiction, it is likely also happening in a nearby jurisdiction due to storm activity. Normal mutual aid resources may not be available, so your agency may have to wait longer than usual for assistance or you may be working with a water rescue team that you have never met or trained with before.

Additionally, since flooding events can be so widespread, it may present itself in different ways. Some agencies will primarily respond to flooded intersections inundated by surface water (non-moving water). Other agencies will have areas of swift water (moving water) that develop with victims trapped or pinned by the power of the moving water.

If you are interested in learning more about floodwater response, we offer Flood Rescue Awareness (3 hours) and Flood Rescue Skills Development (12 hours) programs. Contact us to set up a class for your agency.

Bill Elder
Owner / Lead Instructor
Elder Technical Rescue Services, LLC

Floodwater LODD: Lessons Learned

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of a firefighter LODD that occurred during floodwater rescue operations.  Firefighters had been on-scene where multiple cars were stuck in floodwater.  Initially, they were standing by to turn the scene over to police because there were no entrapments.  While waiting for police to arrive, they were notified that there was a civilian in the floodwater.  What they could not see from the surface though, was that the civilian was standing at the top of a 10 ft. deep culvert.

Two firefighters made their way to the civilian.  Both firefighters ended up being pulled under the water due to the floodwater draining into a large diameter pipe (read more about differential pressures here).  Unfortunately, one of the firefighters was pulled all the way into the pipe and was discharged several blocks away from the scene.  The other firefighter and civilian survived the ordeal.

200102bSource: NIOSH

Lessons Learned:

Emergency services organizations must perform a hazard analysis and risk assessment of their community.  Where there is a possibility of floodwater rescue incidents occurring, organizations should identify the probable locations of flooding and train their personnel, at a minimum, to the awareness level.  Standard operating guidelines should be developed and implemented that emphasize performing a thorough scene size-up and following the water rescue sequence (self, reach, throw, row, go).  Finally, organizations should provide their personnel with the appropriate personal protective equipment for engaging in floodwater rescue operations!

Click here to read the full NIOSH LODD Report.

Elder Technical Rescue Services, LLC offers Flood Rescue Awareness (3 hours) and Flood Rescue Skills Development (12 hours) training.  Please contact us to set up a class for your agency.  Stay safe!

Bill Elder
Owner / Lead Instructor
Elder Technical Rescue Services, LLC

Tropical Storm Isaias Flooding

Thank you to all the first responders on-duty as Tropical Storm Isaias has been rocking the East Coast today.  Special shout out to the Southeastern PA first responders in our neck of the woods.  Take a look at the graph below from the National Weather Service Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service.


The graph shows that the minor flood stage for the Chester Creek near Chester, PA starts at 8 feet, and the height today reached into the major flood stage range at 17.1 feet.  It also shows how quickly the water is going to recede over the next 24 hours.  Remember, as the water recedes, the threat of differential pressures developing increases.

Differential pressure is caused by two bodies of water equalizing (i.e., flood water entering a storm drain).  This differential pressure can develop thousands of pounds of force and pull first responders under water.  Read more about this topic in one our earlier blog posts – Lessons Learned from a Water Rescue LODD.

We offer Flood Rescue Awareness (3 hours) and Flood Rescue Skills Development (12 hours) classes.  Contact us today to set up a class for your agency.

Stay safe!

Bill Elder
Owner / Lead Instructor
Elder Technical Rescue Services, LLC

Lessons Learned from a Water Rescue LODD

Five years ago, on May 23, 2015, a fire captain was killed, and another firefighter injured when they were pulled into a storm drain after evacuating a flooded neighborhood.  You can read the full NIOSH LODD Report here.  We will be discussing some of the key points from the report in this blog post.

storm drainSource: NIOSH

What Happened

Heavy rain and thunderstorms caused rapidly rising flood water to trap families in their homes.  Firefighters responded after 2200 hours, and over the course of an hour they rescued 10 civilians including six children from the residences.  The captain was walking back around the neighborhood to report to the incident command post when he stepped into an unmarked catch basin for a storm drain.  During the rescue effort of the captain, another firefighter was pulled into storm drain but was ejected 276 feet away at the end of the drain.  Unfortunately, the captain drowned in the storm drain.

Key Recommendations

First responders must be trained to the appropriate level in water rescue search and rescue operations.  Remember, the NFPA standards identify several different disciplines related to water rescue.  Flood rescue incidents present many dangerous conditions that are not always necessarily present in natural water ways.

One of the dangerous hazards present during flood rescue incidents is differential pressure.  Differential pressure is caused by two bodies of water equalizing (i.e., flood water entering a storm drain).  This differential pressure can develop thousands of pounds of force and must be avoided by first responders operating at flood incidents.  One way to avoid them is to identify the hazard prior to the flooding incident.  If your authority having jurisdiction has performed a thorough hazard analysis and risk assessment, then you may already have some of this information available to you.

Lastly, remember to wear the appropriate PPE at flood rescue incidents.  Dry suits, personal flotation devices (PFDs), and appropriate water rescue helmets, gloves and footwear are incredibly important.  Wearing the correct PPE will give you the best opportunity to survive in this environment and will protect you from hazardous materials contamination that is present in flood water.

Bill Elder
Owner / Lead Instructor
Elder Technical Rescue Services, LLC

Mention this blog post when scheduling our Flood Rescue Awareness (3 hours) or Flood Rescue Skills Development (12 hours) classes and receive a 10% discount.  Contact us to set up a class for your agency.

Anniversary of a Water Rescue Near Miss

Thirteen years ago on April 17, 2007, two fire fighters were seriously injured while conducting water rescue training.  The near miss occurred when they were practicing a two-boat tether rescue technique downstream of a low-head dam.  Both boats being used in the evolution eventually crossed the boil line of the hydraulic created by the low-head dam, causing four fire fighters to become victims with two of them suffering serious injuries.  For more details about this incident, read this NIOSH Report.

Photo of Low-Head Dam.  Source: NIOSH

What is a low-head dam and a hydraulic?

Low-head dams are walls that span a river from one side to another that restrict the flow of water downstream.  This causes a buildup of water upstream of the dam which can be used for recreational purposes.  The problem with low-head dams, is that as the water flows over the top of the dam a dangerous phenomenon known as a hydraulic is created.  Hydraulics are dangerous recirculating water that is highly aerated (in other words, has a lot of air in it).  This recirculating water pulls in unsuspecting people and objects.  Hydraulics can also be created by naturally occurring drops in rivers.

What is the two-boat tether technique and boil line?

The preferred method of performing a rescue of someone trapped in a hydraulic is from the shore using some type of reaching device or throw bag.  A more advanced evolution utilizes two rescue boats tethered to each other.  The primary or lead boat approaches the boil line from downstream while tethered to the secondary boat behind it.  Once close enough, the primary boat can use a reach device or throw bag to perform the rescue from their boat.  The secondary boat prevents the primary boat from being pulled into the hydraulic.

The boil line is the point you do not want to cross.  The boil line is where the highly aerated recirculating water starts.  Once passed the boil line, it is very difficult to escape the hydraulic.  The recirculating water constantly pulls you back under the water, and the aerated water makes your personal flotation device highly ineffective.  All of these factors together are why a lot of people call low-head dams “drowning machines.”

How many people have been killed by low-head dams?

Brigham Young University has done in-depth research on the dangers of low-head dams and maintains a database of reported fatalities.  According to their data, there have been 555 fatalities since 1952.  Unfortunately, several first responders have also been killed by low-head dams.  Two of them, Captain Stanley Balsis and Firefighter Michael Whalen, are forever memorialized by their fire department in Elgin, IL.

elginmemorialCaptain Balsis and FF Whalen Memorial.  Source: Elgin Fire Department, Elgin, Illinois Facebook Page

Bill Elder
Owner / Lead Instructor
Elder Technical Rescue Services, LLC

Mention this blog post when contacting us to set up a water rescue class for your agency and receive a 10% discount on the cost of the class!