From a risk-management standpoint, nothing is more important for the success of a water-rescue training program than documentation.
Flooding is the leading cause of death due to natural disaster around the world, with an estimated 4.5 million fatalities over the past century. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States is far from immune to the problem. As evidence, the U.S. fatality rate for drowning and boating incidents in 2007 was 13.7 per million, slightly higher than the fire fatality rate of 13.2 per million that the U.S. Fire Administration reported that same year.
The simple truth is that water and flood incidents are a real concern for almost every community in America, but most are woefully unprepared for such events. The average first responder in the United States has not even received awareness-level water- and flood-rescue training. Half of the problem rests with a lack of clear lines of authority and responsibility; the other half is the fact that these rescues are few and far between. So even when fire-department or law-enforcement search-and-rescue units provide water-rescue response, the level of agency commitment often is less than optimal.
As a second-line collateral duty with a low call volume and a high fatality rate, water and flood rescues are the type of high risk/low frequency events that force risk managers to compromise between funding, budgeting, training and staffing.
Adding to the problem is the contemporary trend in fire-service litigation that leans toward negligence accusations aimed at the fire department and/or the rescuers themselves. For example, in wildland firefighting, two recent cases have seen incident commanders charged criminally with the wrongful death of firefighters. The trend is not confined to the United States, as illustrated by the recent, unfortunate death of an Ontario, Canada, volunteer firefighter during ice-rescue training. Reportedly, the incident resulted in 11 charges laid against the village, the fire chief and the supervising instructor.
Moreover, Howard Robinson, in his article "A Strange New World" noted that in the United Kingdom, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act of 2007 holds that corporate or public organizations can be held criminally liable in instances of "gross failure in the way activities are managed or organized resulting in a person’s death." Clearly this is an international trend and American first responders are vulnerable to such scrutiny.
According to the U.K. government, as outlined in the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010, "Risk management means anything done for the purpose of, analyzing a risk, assessing a risk, reducing a risk." Performing an effective and comprehensive risk-management assessment can help to provide a positive and proactive defense against litigation should something at a rescue go wrong. Without question, training is the central component in any such risk assessment.
Unfortunately, many command officers currently have little or no experience concerning water rescue. This makes managing an incident extremely difficult and has the potential to open the officer to legal exposure. Some departments address this issue by assigning the operations section chief position to the senior swiftwater-rescue technician on scene. An alternative is to provide water-rescue training to command level personnel. Over the past several years, third-party training organizations have developed specific command-level classes focused on managing water and flood incidents, similar to those offered for hazmat incident command.
Training, Documentation and SOGs
It is imperative that water and flood rescue training be founded on credible, recognized standards. The National Fire Protection Association’s water-rescue guidelines are defined in its NFPA 1670 and NFPA 1006 standards. Fire departments also want a good working knowledge of NFPA 1500 (health and safety), NFPA 1951 (PPE for technical rescue), NFPA 1952 (water PPE and gear), and NFPA 1983 (rope rescue). Collectively, these standards provide a framework for fire departments to plan and manage their water-rescue programs.
The drawback to these documents is that NFPA 1670 and 1006 are very technical and encompass a wide range of technical rescue disciplines. While it is possible for an agency to make sense of the NFPA documents in an effort to design a water-rescue training program of its own, it can prove to be a daunting challenge. It is critical that fire departments analyze both standards and recognize that they were not written in parallel.
Another issue is that personnel turn over and updates to the standard further stretch already limited resources, causing even the healthiest water rescue program to fall behind current standards.
Portability is a key concept in state-of-the-art training, as it impacts interoperability between agencies. Portability allows agencies to work together safely and to use resources more effectively on joint rescues. Achieving portability is accomplished most easily through the use of a training program that is nationally or internationally recognized. This ensures that even national disasters can be staffed by personnel trained to the same standards with the same skill sets.
Rivers and flood incidents travel between jurisdictions, districts and even states, as happened with Hurricane Katrina; portability of this type empowers the managing agency to focus its efforts on its primary mission.
From a risk-management standpoint, nothing is more important for the success of a water-rescue training program than documentation. It is important that these records capture each individual rescuer’s training specific to each skill and knowledge set, for both initial and refresher training. This may be more labor-intensive than agencies are used to for fire training, but case history has demonstrated the importance of detailed documentation relative to technical-rescue training.
Besides training records, fire departments also need to develop standard operating guidelines that work in concert with the NFPA standards. SOGs provide direction in areas not covered by the NFPA documents; as such, they help to structure an agency’s water- and flood-rescue response plan, and to define its training levels.
One final and critical component in a risk management assessment of a water- and flood-rescue training program concerns program validation. NFPA 1006 requires third-party skills assessment, but most risk managers would agree that third-party validation of the entire program would be preferable. Receiving third-party validation of a program toward not only provides fire departments with accreditation, but also offers a measure of liability protection.
Independent Training Providers
Use of an independent training provider can be a very convenient option for meeting many of the risk management issues described above. An independent training provider can free department personnel from the tedious responsibility of remaining current with the latest standards and can keep the department up to date on ever-evolving practices, tools and theories from domestic and international sources.
Use of an independent training provider also can address the portability issue. By selecting a provider with a nationally recognized program, incident commanders can be assured that responders from different teams will have the same skill sets and training.
An additional benefit of working with an independent provider is discussed in a 2006 article by Barbara Mascio, the founder of Senior Approved Services, which makes recommendations regarding products and services that are appropriate for senior citizens. In the article, "Third Party Validation," Mascio points out that public cynicism is such that organizations cannot simply claim trustworthiness by mere works or deeds. More than ever, the public requires independent sources of information on the trustworthiness of organizations. Thus, by training with an outside organization and maintaining training records, programs and policies, fire departments are not just asking the public for blind trust; rather, they are demonstrating that they are meeting a recognized "standard of care" and have taken significant steps toward mitigating risk in their jurisdictions.
There are numerous considerations when choosing an independent training provider. The following are some of the basic guidelines to consider when conducting such a search.
- Look for classes and programs that have a proven track record. Ask for a reference list of agencies taught and a history of the organization.
- Extensive knowledge of the current NFPA standards and the ability to monitor and comprehend future additions are essential. It is easy to claim compliance with NFPA; agencies must look for documented proof in the form of NFPA objectives that are embedded in the training material. There also should be a program specific to the evaluation of rescuers skills under NFPA 1006.
- Ask whether the training provider can show proof of third-party validation of the training program. This could include validation by a government standards agency, or a university with an applicable educational track.
- Independent documentation and record keeping of all training and evaluations also are essential. Documentation regarding the skills performed in each class, as well as a database that encompasses all of a rescuer’s training records and portfolio, should be readily available. It is imperative that the agency has easy and ready access to these documents — which should be kept indefinitely.
- Advisors that work in and are leaders in the field of technical rescue are an imperative, as they can refine and update programs, classes and skill sets continually, based on real-world experiences and training. In short, make sure that they are creditable as an independent expert on water and flood rescue.
- Finally, look for a training provider that can be helpful in the drafting and implementation of SOGs.
By training to the national standards and by implementing and following standard operating guidelines, fire departments can establish a firm legal defense against negligence or wrongful death suits. Also, by being diligent in the selection of an independent training provider, the department can save time, resources and remain current regarding water- and ice-rescue tactics.
Phil Turnbull has 32 years of experience in the fire-rescue field, 23 of them as a chief officer. He is also a swiftwater-instructor trainer and director of curriculum for Rescue 3 International. In addition, Phil directs the Associate Staff Lecturers in the United States for the University of Central Lancashire, United Kingdom.
J. Michael Turnbull is the president of Rescue 3 International. He also oversees a partnership between Rescue 3 and the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom to offer a joint degree program in rescue instruction in the United States and Canada.